It’s been a big offseason for the Eagles. Their final 53-man roster was filled with depth at positions where it wasn’t expected, and a lack of it where numbers were considered a necessity. One of the positions that flew under the radar on that front was the team’s last line of Defense.
The Eagles decided to keep five Safeties on their roster after signing Corey Graham earlier in the offseason. Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are the starting tandem, with Graham and Watkins listed behind them and special teams ace Chris Maragos being the fifth. But the decision to go heavy at Safety isn’t just a coincidence.
The narrative in the secondary last year is one told too often. Ron Brooks suffered a season-ending injury that dragged Malcolm Jenkins into the nickel and forced Jaylen Watkins into the game on 38% of defensive snaps overall. While adding some extra veteran and starting talent behind the team’s star-studded starters, it gives the Eagles some much needed optionality.
Graham was one of the Bills’ most durable players lat year. Playing in 98% of snaps, he recorded 87 tackles and an interception. Since entering the league in 2007, Graham has only missed one game and spent eight of his ten season’s playing in a mix of cornerback roles for the Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears.
There’s one thing all of the Eagles safeties have in common however. Young or old, special teams ace or former Pro Bowler, they’re all built in the mold of a new prototype. Speed, versatility and ball skills are the name of the game now.
“For me, it’s more wide receiver, tight ends, the college guy. You’ve seen it.” Jim Schwartz told the media yesterday. “Washington has [TE] Jordan Reed. There are a bunch of those guys around the league, whether it’s [Seahawks TE] Jimmy Graham or whoever it is. They all line them up at wide receiver and you have to have the ability to cover.”
The team is almost renowned for its pressure up front at this point. With Derek Barnett and Tim Jernigan headlining the offseason additions to the pass rush, it would be no hot take to predict that the Eagles front four emerges as one of the most disruptive in the league. To be able to do that however, you need help over the top.
“A lot of times your safeties have to cover almost every offense — probably 60 to 70 percent of our snaps this year will be against three wide receiver sets.” Schwartz said. “So anytime you’re blitzing, that guy is not now just covering a fullback or a tight end, he’s covering a skill player, he is covering a wide receiver. So it gives you some flexibility to be able to handle those things.”
Surprisingly, the Eagles didn’t actually blitz that much at all last year. In fact, the team only blitzed 142 times during their 7-9 campaign, amassing just 11 sacks of their season total 34. This year however, with the versatility to move guys right down into the nickel or help those corners left on an Island, the Eagles are locked and loaded over the top with a new breed of NFL Safety.
“I go back, I’ve been around a while, when safeties were named ‘Thumper’ — and I had a guy in Tennessee, first name was Tank, and I joked — Tank was a hell of a player, Tank Williams out of Stanford.” Schwartz explained. “But Tank was a 235-pound safety. We saw a lot of two-back sets. He was sort of an extra linebacker in there, even though he was fast. I don’t need guys named ‘Hammer’ and ‘Tank’, I need guys named ‘Swifty’ and ‘Ball Hawk’ and ‘The Glove’. Those are nicknames we’re looking for now.”
If not for a role that was spread out so vastly around the Defense, Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod may well have created their own legion of boom. They will have a chance to do just that once more this season, and with some reinforcements from versatile defensive backs who can hit hard and sniff the ball out, it’s safe to say that Schwartz should feel more comfort in taking the chains off of a pass rush that’s destined to dominate.
Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports