Philadelphia Eagles News

Searching For The Answer At Safety

There was Sean Jones and Macho Harris. Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman held down the safety positions for a couple of seasons together. Patrick Chung and Earl Wolff split time in 2013 next to Allen, and then Malcolm Jenkins arrived in 2014.

The hole created when Brian Dawkins left the Eagles in free agency to sign in Denver in 2008 has been an annual challenge for this team, and 2015 is no exception. As Jenkins returns for his second season coming off a strong first year in the Bill Davis defense, Allen signed with the Oakland Raiders in free agency, and the secondary has a fill to make.

Where have all the great safeties gone? It's a question most NFL teams ask. Aside from the quarterback position, safety may be the most difficult spot to find excellence at this level. The wide receiver and cornerback positions have claimed most of the big, tall, physical players who have great speed at the college level. College recruiters see kids who are 6-feet and taller who can run and make those players big-play makers on offense in the passing game or turn them into cornerbacks. The run of great wide receivers in the draft these last couple of springs is unprecedented, followed by some top-shelf talents at the cornerback position, albeit to a lesser extent.

Safety? Only one, Alabama's Landon Collins, is projected to be taken in the first round on April 30. Four were selected in the first round in 2014, with mixed results. Will any of them become stars? That's very much a question in each case.

As far as the Eagles are concerned, the departure of Dawkins after the 2008 trip to the NFC Championship Game created a doughnut in the defense. Dawkins wasn't as dominating in 2008 as he had been for most of his Eagles career, and the story of why and how he left has long been discussed. The point is, the Eagles gave Dawkins an opening to leave and he took it, and the team has not been able to find continuity at safety since then.

Quintin Mikell played here for another two seasons after Dawkins left and tried to coach Jones and Harris along in 2009. Allen played well in his rookie season in 2010 alongside Mikell until Allen suffered a massive knee injury late in the year. Mikell left after 2010 and played for a couple of seasons in St. Louis and then one in Carolina, wrapping up a wonderful 11-year NFL career.

Meanwhile, the Eagles enter the 2015 draft period with Jenkins, signed as an unrestricted free agent in 2014, and a big question mark next to him.

What is the answer for the defense? We're going to find out together. The Eagles are going to consider every option, and Collins has been a popular name to slot for the Eagles in mock drafts around the Internet. Maybe he's the guy; maybe the Eagles have other ideas. They need a player who has the ability to be versatile in coverage and at the line of scrimmage. What makes Jenkins so valuable is that he can cover sideline to sideline as a single-high safety, he can support against the run and he has the skills to get to the line of scrimmage and jam a receiver in press coverage. Jenkins, a first-round draft pick as a cornerback by New Orleans in 2009, should only get better in Year 2 as an Eagle after a strong debut season.

There are some candidates on the current roster to step into the starting role. Wolff had microfracture surgery on his knee and is working hard to recover. He looks great and is excited to get back on the field. Chris Maragos is more of a special teams standout, but he knows the scheme and will try to work his way into the mix. Chris Prosinski has size and is another special teams standout who will look to earn time. Jerome Couplin III was signed from Detroit's practice squad last December. He is early in his NFL life and is raw, but he's big and has long arms and looks the part. Can he fill the needs for this defense?

Second-year cornerback Jaylen Watkins is going to get some looks -- the Eagles think he has the versatility to play both cornerback and safety. Head coach Chip Kelly talked about that very possibility when the Eagles selected Watkins last May with the first pick in the fourth round, the 101st pick overall.

"Extremely high football intelligence," Kelly said. "He has the speed to play corner, but sometimes when you're drafting guys, you're trying to project that maybe he can be this. Obviously, there is evidence of him playing safety and doing it at a really high level.

"He could be the quarterback of the defense because of his football intelligence, and we just thought that versatility and that football intelligence and character part of it, we thought it was a really good value, especially today. He's one of those guys that we were really excited about last night, where if we didn't get a great offer, then we were going to stay right there and take Jaylen."

Another candidate is veteran E.J. Biggers, signed last week as an unrestricted free agent. Biggers has size and experience and is also going to have a chance to win time in the spring and summer.

Safety might be the biggest question mark on defense for Davis. He wants his cornerbacks to play press coverage and really disrupt receivers' timing. He wants a physical secondary. With a strong front seven working against the running game, the safety position have to be excellent against the passing game -- helping over the top, matching up in single coverage, mixing it up physically near the line of scrimmage. An "in the box" safety isn't the best descriptive for a safety in this scheme, or for any NFL team. That's not the way the game is played any longer. Offenses are spreading defenses out and forcing them to cover receivers in space.

The great safety has largely gone the way of Dawkins and Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu, who retired this week. Seattle has two of them in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. San Francisco made a shrewd addition last year by signing Antoine Bethea. New England spent huge money on Devin McCourty, a player the Eagles reportedly went hard after, in free agency.

No doubt the Eagles need an answer, one that could be on the current roster or coming soon in the draft or in another personnel acquisition down the road. It is an important piece missing from a secondary that has been overhauled these last two offseasons.

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