The Eagles are deep into Training camp and the positional battles are hitting new levels of intensity as the team’s first pre-season game approaches. But beyond the cornerback battle, the war at wide receiver and the questions facing the Offensive line..lies a very underrated, yet pivotal battle. The battle for the backup Safety spots.
One of the strongest positions on the entire roster is the Safety position. The tandem of Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod could well be primed for a huge season under Jim Schwartz and have locked down the starting roles for the foreseeable future but what happens if someone goes down?
Malcolm Jenkins left practice early a couple of days ago with a Hamstring injury and is yet to return while Rodney McLeod is currently away due to a family issue. This opened up a big window for the third and fourth string guys to really make an impact..and Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is paying close attention:
“We need to find out who is going to be our third and fourth, and maybe even a potential fifth with special teams and stuff like that. When a guy goes down, it’s a great opportunity for those other guys to step up. The opportunity only exists if you take advantage of it, and those guys need to do a better job of taking advantage of it.”
Who are the guys in question? Well, this is where things get interesting. After the departure of Walter Thurmond, the Eagles were left with Ed Reynolds and Chris Maragos before later going after Rodney McLeod and signing him to a five year deal. So surely, that’s the Eagles all set..right? Not quite.
The birds went on to draft Blake Countess in the sixth round of this years NFL Draft, a cornerback out of Auburn. One round later, they selected LSU’s Jalen Mills..another cornerback. The Eagles went into Training camp with eleven defensive backs on the roster and just four Safeties.
Two weeks into camp and the logjam at Cornerback is already apparent..but the Eagles had a smart idea. Both Mills and Countess are extremely versatile, but Countess was arguably the more physical of the two and more suited to the Safety spot. At 5’9, the ceiling for Countess at cornerback would be a nickel corner position..but in moving him to Safety as I predicted before OTA’s, Countess has the chance to learn under two of the most physically impressive Safeties in the league in a system where aggression is embedded into the mindset.
So with Mills now at cornerback and flying high in Training camp while Countess competes at Safety, you’d think surely that’s where the competition ends..but again, it’s not that simple.
It’s been noted recently that cornerback Jaylen Watkins has been competing at the Safety spot..and killing it. Over the last few days, Watkins has had his fair share of pass breakups, interceptions and tackles. I posted an All-22 on Watkins a few months back, posing the question of whether or not he could well help stop the formidable NFC East receivers (you can read it here).
Watkins may be regarded as anything but a shutdown Corner or dominant Safety..but he’s largely underrated. After lining up against Larry Fitzgerald, DeSean Jackson and even stopping Jordan Reed in 2015, Watkins showed that he can go toe-to-toe with some of the most dangerous in the game if given the opportunity.
So, competing for the backup Safety spot now are the following four players:
With the Eagles bye-week falling as early as week 4, it’s likely that the backup Safety is going to see a fair amount of playing time throughout the season. Whether that’s due to injury or through rotation to prevent it, the Eagles need to know that heading into week one with a relentless and demanding Defense, the backup Safeties on the roster are the most ready to come in and make an impact.
As Jim Schwartz alluded to in a recent press conference, there’s every chance that up to three of these guys make the roster..but who’s going to lose out? It’s likely that the Eagles retain Maragos due to his Special Teams presence..but it depends how highly Schwartz values a proven special teams performer over a backup with a higher ceiling.
Maragos played in just 25.1% of Defensive snaps in 2015..and a staggeringly low 1.3% during 2014. In a normal circumstance, it would be safe to assume that Maragos has a secured spot on the roster due to just how impactful he is on Special teams, but this isn’t a normal situation..and the competition is vicious.
If the focus is Special teams, then Chris Maragos is favored to retain his spot on the roster. But if Jim Schwartz considers Defensive ability to be a priority, then we have a huge battle on our hands..and one in which every player competing has a great chance to make the roster.
To spice things up even further, Maragos, Reynolds and Watkins are all entering their contract year. This could be their final shot at securing their long-term NFL futures if they have big year’s or do enough to earn an extension.
With Watkins continuing to shine in the absence of Jenkins, Countess being the team’s sixth round pick and Ed Reynolds trying to prove that his flashes of brilliance in 2015 were more than just glimmers..this position battle promises to run deep into Training camp and have consequences that run deep into the Eagles roster.
If the birds decide to carry five Safeties, it likely means that they’ll carry one less cornerback or Wide receiver..two very densely populated positions. But if that does happen, who then loses out? The cornerback competition is so close and the WR battle is just as intense, if not more so.
It may not be the most glamorous position battle on the roster and we may not even see them take the field much Defensively in 2016, but if McLeod or Jenkins go down and the Eagles don’t put themselves in a position to hold the fort by making sure the best two or three guys are on the sidelines raring to go..it could come back and haunt them.
The Eagles are preparing themselves for a long and exhausting 2016 season and while there are far more prominent position battles on the roster..the decision of how many Safeties are on the team come the first game week is one that could ripple throughout the entire roster and hold a lot of weight should an injury occur.
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