Training Camp is a mere two weeks away for the Philadelphia Eagles and excitement is beginning to build. There hasn’t been a repeat NFC East winner since 2004, when Andy Reid’s team won it three years in a row. But fans of the players in Midnight Green are hoping for a repeat of a slightly higher magnitude. In order for this to happen however, the team need to solidify one position in particular.
Of the 948 snaps played by two-time Super Bowl Champion, Malcolm Jenkins, 42% of them were at linebacker, or inside the box. You may be wondering why this is important. Well, during those 42% of defensive snaps, it meant that Rodney McLeod had a combination of different running mates involving both Corey Graham and Jaylen Watkins. Watkins has since signed with the Chargers and Graham, while still reportedly linked with the team, remains a free agent.
Without confidence in the 3rd/4th safeties, it means that Malcolm Jenkins would likely be forced onto the back-line once again, revoking his role as a remote-controlled missile for Jim Schwartz. Jenkins caused complete chaos inside the box last season and with linebacker depth also light, he could be expected to replicate that production. To do so, the Eagles need to find a solution to solidifying the safety spot. The answer may well rest on the shoulders of two players in particular, both of whom happen to be undrafted pickups.
The leading candidate at this stage appears to be South Alabama’s Jeremy Reaves. The Eagles brought Reaves in on a pre-draft visit and it’s not difficult to see why. One of the most physical defensive backs in this year’s class, Reaves is another gem out of the Sun Belt conference. In fact, he was named the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2017, amassing 104 tackles, 3 picks and forcing 4 fumbles.
At 5’11, 190 lbs, Reaves uses his slightly undersized frame as an explosion waiting to happen. A former High School running back, the decision to sign with Philadelphia was a no-brainer for Reaves, who wanted to dish out the hits he used to take as a running back once he got to college.
“I use it as fuel. I’m not the biggest kid, I’m not the 6’4 kid, 230 lbs, kid, I don’t have a 40-inch vert…but I’m a ballplayer and I was very confident in the ballplayer I was then.”Reaves told me in an exclusive interview not too long ago. “I knew it didn’t define me and it never would. I was upset because a lot of people expected me to go there, but it’s another chapter in the story I’ll be able to tell one day, to say yeah I didn’t go to the combine, I didn’t get drafted, but I’ve played in the league, won Super Bowls. It’s another part of the story.”
It’s interesting then, that the second undrafted Safety picked up by the Eagles completely contrasts Reaves’ style of play.
At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, Ryan Neal has the perfect size to play Safety at the next level, but his stunning 4.44 40-yard dash time recorded at Northwestern’s pro-day is what really drew attention to his game. Teams reportedly saw Neal as a hybrid player who could play both corner and safety and it will be interesting to see how the Eagles use him over the Summer.
While Reaves prides himself on hitting like a human freight train, Neal has played for three different defensive coordinators in the last four years and has seen his game adapt to a variety of different gamelans and schemes in that time. Playing at both cornerback and at Safety, Neal had 2 picks in 2017 to go with 84 tackles. With 226 tackles (ranking 27th all-time in school history), 6.5 for a loss, 5 picks and 19 pass breakups in his career, his rangy frame made for some impressive plays at Southern Illinois. He also led the school with 84 tackles in 2017 and tied with his running-mate Jeremy Chinn when it came to interceptions.
The versatility and contrastingly rangy frame of Neal perfectly partner up with the compact and explosive build of Jeremy Reaves. By having both not he field at the same time in a cover-3 for instance, you have a Safety who can drop down into the box or take on a hefty tight end, another who can pluck away those stray passes or knock balls loose at the point of the catch, and a third in McLeod whose skillset essentially ties the best of both worlds. This would also give some insight as to why the team haven’t re-enforced what is a priority position during the offseason. No free agents, no trades, just undrafted help.
It’s really not hard to imagine Jim Schwartz aiming to build a Safety position of different skillsets that can be plugged in and out at a moments notice, presenting different challenges to receivers, quarterbacks and of course offensive coordinators. Their names may not be household ones just yet, but that could all change by this time next year.
“You’re getting a blue-collar player, a workaholic.” Reaves said in the interview. “I believe in trusting the process and that’s what got me here. I fell in love with it. I’m excited to put on a show for you guys.”
Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports