As the calm before the storm of Training Camp blankets the NFL, the Eagles are preparing for one of their most intense and important Training Camps in recent memory. From wide receiver and cornerback, to the many battles that will ensue in the trenches, there isn’t a position on the roster that isn’t facing heavy competition. One of the most overlooked of all however, comes from an unlikely place.
At first glance, Safety is one of the securest spots on the entire roster. A starting tandem of Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod seem poised to emerge as one of the league’s leading duos in 2017, after their first campaign under Jim Schwartz was one of high production and aggressive tackling. But something interesting happened during the heart of 2016…and it’s led to one of the most interesting positional battles that is set to take place when the NovaCare Complex opens its gates once more.
After a rocky 2015 season saw the Eagles break from within, eventually leading to the firing of Chip Kelly, Jaylen Watkins was a cornerback who despite big performances against Arizona and Washington, continued to remain hidden among the depth at the position. A late decision to move to Safety not only saved his career, as he beat out sixth round pick Blake Countess to the backup role, but also helped keep the Eagles Defense together when the going got tough.
When Ron Brooks suffered a season-ending injury, Malcolm Jenkins was forced into taking on slot duties..leaving a vacancy next to McLeod over the top. Watkins trounced his previous career high in tackles, amassing 32 in total to go with 3 pass breakups. Even though once again his contributions were largely overlooked, Watkins played in 38% of defensive snaps and over 50% of special teams snaps. His reliability at the position as a solid backup allowed Jenkins to put the weight of the toughest spot in the secondary on his shoulders and perform as only Malcolm Jenkins can.
But one season on, and history is repeating itself for a third time when it comes to the former Florida Defensive Back. The Eagles retained the 25-year old Safety by signing him to a one-year tender during the offseason, buying Watkins one last shot at earning a longer extension with the team that drafted him in the fourth round. It was a challenge that on the surface seemed attainable. But there was a wildcard in the mix…and one who has been doing more than just turn heads throughout OTA’s and Mandatory Minicamp.
There was another defensive back in that 2014 draft who would be taken one round before Watkins, Terrence Brooks. A First-team All-ACC and First-team All-American in his final season for Florida, Brooks stepped into the notorious Baltimore Defense with a ceiling that was sky-high. Some wobbly ball skills saw his rookie season with slot experience overlooked by many, but his 5’11, 200 lbs, frame ensured he was a prospect worth watching in Baltimore’s cluster of DB’s. With 19 tackles during the 2014 season including THAT hit against Delanie Walker, it seemed as though Brooks was developing nicely. But just 11 games into the year, a torn MCL and ACL crushed any hopes of ending on a high…damaging his chances of keeping his spot on the depth chart next year.
Brooks seemed to factor in more as a nickel corner the next year as opposed to the Safety spot in which he was drafted to play, missing a further four games due to a thumb injury. As his future became marginalized and the odds became overwhelming, it all seemed like a career that would unfortunately never live up to what was once hoped. The Ravens would later waive Terrence Brooks just one week before the start of the regular season. The Eagles would swipe him off the waiver wire just one day later…and the reasoning was clear.
Brooks was one of the 10 defensive backs drafted by Baltimore between 2008-2015, when Joe Douglas made his name. If anybody knew the ceiling Brooks still may have, it’s the man who has seen every snap he’s played since drafting him back in 2014. Douglas now houses one of the league’s leading sports science programs, making the decision to take a swing even more tempting.
Given the time in which brooks joined the Eagles, it left little in the way of time to prepare. With just days to digest the new scheme and playbook and accommodate himself to life in the City of Brotherly Love, Brooks saw his role gradually increase over time. He spent the majority of the year on Fipp’s esteemed special teams unit. However, the former Raven flashed the potential many believed him to have coming out of college, when he came down with a crucial interception, the first of his career, in the win over New York. Turning heads in minimal cornerback and split safety reps, Brooks appeared to flash at the right times and grow in confidence as the season progressed.
So here we are. Two defensive backs who have undergone transition in the hope of saving their career. Two players who possess very similar frames and skillsets, and two players who have made eye-popping contributions at the right times. The problem is, there’s only so much Cake to go around.
It’s likely that the Eagles will carry four Safeties. Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are locks to start, while Chris Maragos captains the Eagles special teams unit…leaving just one spot up for grabs, and two players who simply need that security if they are to earn a long-term NFL future. With Nebraska Safety, Nate Gerry, dropping down into the box to help at linebacker, it’s a one-on-one showdown heading into Training Camp…and one in which Brooks has taken the upper hand.
Through Mandatory Minicamp and OTA’s, it’s been the former Raven consistently making plays…while Watkins has had a slightly wobblier path, dropping should-be interceptions and occasionally giving up big plays. The momentum has begun to swing…and the pressure is mounting as Training Camp draws near.
What makes this battle so exciting is that even though it’s a depth role on the roster, the two players competing have walked very similar paths until this point. Drafted in the heart of the 2014 NFL Draft and overlooked by many, a change in position has led them to a new opportunity in a Defense that fits their style of play. The question becomes, who can make the most of it?
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports