Quintin Demps has an opportunity right in front of him. So does Sean Jones. Both players want to start in this defense. Both players know that to do so, they must master the scheme now, and then show in training camp and in the preseason that they can play fast, that they can make the adjustments required and that they can take advantage of turnover opportunities.
Of the long list of questions about the Eagles as they gear up for Week 2 of the team's camp for selected veterans and rookies, one safety spot has to be right near the top. The Eagles have addressed so aggressively the roster in the off-season -- the rebuilt offensive line, the fullback position, depth at halfback, wide receiver and tight end -- and they have numbers at safety, possibilities at safety and, yeah, still the nagging question of who fills the enormous void created by the departure of Brian Dawkins during the free-agency period.
On the record -- and off, for that matter -- the coaches are pleased with what they have seen so far from Demps. The second-year man, who had more than a little bit of a taste of live action last season, has responded to the open-door opportunity. He has been diligent in his film study and he has a much more secure grasp of the defense and the complexities within it. The Eagles already knew that Demps could handle the speed and the physical nature of the game at this level, but overcoming his inexperience to become a primary signal caller is the challenge that can't possibly be answered until the pads are on and teams are shifting formations and changing personnel, moves that require a counter-attack from Demps and the defense.
Jones has been around the league long enough to know the game: He has to learn the terminology here and he has to understand what the defensive coaching staff wants him to do. Jones is a strong safety through and through, although the Eagles ask both safeties to do the same things at times in this defense.
There are other candidates to start alongside Quintin Mikell -- Rashad Baker, a free agent-signee who had a strong season in Oakland last year, and Macho Harris, a draft pick who is just learning the system and who has been ill enough to miss the first week of the camp -- but Demps and then Jones are first and second in line.
And make no mistake, finding that answer sooner rather than later is a big deal for a defense that has 10 starters returning from the 2008 squad, and that traded for veteran Ellis Hobbs to help at cornerback, and that has a slew of younger veterans who are primed to show what they can do this season.
If the Eagles can solve that one safety spot ...
Maybe the Eagles are feeling much more secure about Demps/Jones/Baker, etc. than anyone else. Maybe -- certainly they do -- the Eagles know exactly where Demps is in his maturation, and they have a sense after seeing Jones in two camps where he can best fit into this defense. There was never an ounce of panic from the coaching staff when Dawkins signed in Denver and there hasn't been any since. Nobody is asking Demps to replace a seven-time Pro Bowl player step for step, but Demps has to make plays in the scheme and get to the football and do something with it when he has a chance to get his hands on the pigskin.
The defense is, largely, set in every other area. Oh, we all wonder if the Eagles can manufacture enough of a consistent pass rush outside of Trent Cole, and that is something to watch. The battle at WILL linebacker between Akeem Jordan and Omar Gaither is interesting, and at the same time both players have started there and both have played well. And, certainly Chris Gocong needs to play better in space and improve his angles and show, as he did in 2008, improvement in his play as a pure linebacker.
By NFL standards, this defense is in terrific shape. It is deep, talented, with a good mix of youth and experience. The Eagles have playmakers on their defense, and they have speed and a good, strong spirited nature. This defense loves to play the game. This defense is physical. This defense creates turnovers, stops the run, keeps the Eagles in games.
And this defense could be great if Demps/Jones/Baker, etc. make great strides and fill the void at safety. The Eagles ramp up again on Tuesday, and on that day the coaches are going to install some new twists in the defense and they're going to monitor Demps and his mental capacity, and they're going to watch Jones and see how he reacts and moves around on a knee that last year bothered him in Cleveland and that is now completely good to do. They are going to learn just a little bit more about Baker.
All of these practices, all of this classroom work pays off for the Eagles if they solve this safety situation early, early, early in training camp. It can't linger into the latter stages of the summer. Somebody has to step up and clearly take command, and maybe then the Eagles can think about how tremendous this defense can be when it becomes whole.