There’s no such thing as a perfect Draft. Hits, misses, wild trades and sought after sleepers are all just part of the weekend-long rollercoaster. But so long as a team ticks the majority of boxes on their sheet of team needs, the majority of fans will be left purring. Although they only had five selections in total, this was again the case for the Philadelphia Eagles. Only this time, there was what was perceived to be a glaring need left unchecked.
Safety has been an offseason-long need for Roseman’s roster. The Eagles have kept a third-safety on the field at least 60% of the time over the last two years thanks to the growing use of nickel and dime packages and 2018 highlighted a need for long-term depth. Corey Graham was hardly mesmerizing, Rodney McLeod suffered a season-ending injury before taking a monumental paycut, and Malcolm Jenkins won’t be around forever.
The team did sign former Vikings veteran Andrew Sendejo in free agency, who prior to a season-ending injury of his own in 2018, was coming off of a career-season. However, Sendejo is only on a one-year deal…and the Eagles need to be thinking about the next of kin.
It was assumed that with so many high-potential candidates in the draft, that the Eagles would take one. If not early (stunningly), then at least in the heart of the draft. But the picks came and went, some of those big names linked with the team kept slipping and slipping, and the Eagles walked away from the Draft empty-handed.
It could be that the Eagles either:
A) Feel comfortable enough with their current short-term depth to wait one more year, not feeling the immediate need to fill the hole.
B) Feel as though the heir to that throne is already on the roster.
It could be a combination of the two…but if it’s the latter, we’ve seen this before.
Remember the name Jaylen Watkins? Memories of some big plays at Safety during the Eagles Super Bowl winning season probably come to mind. But before that success, he was a cornerback who fell out of favor.
In fact after giving up a 73-yard touchdown against the Bears in his rookie season among a handful of other errors, many seemed to look straight past him..coaches included. The recently drafted Eric Rowe, the unknown of JaCorey Shepherd, an experienced E.J Biggers and some impressive camp performances from undrafted rookies like Denzel Rice, filled the room with smoke. A room that Jaylen Watkins was stood at the back of as the coaches filled their lungs with what was around them.
Watkins ended up spending a year on the Bills practice squad before returning to the Eagles in 2015, being dropped into the deep end late in the season, being asked to cover Larry Fitzgerald, DeSean Jackson, Jordan Reed and John Brown to name a few.
Watkins survived the Chip Kelly roster purge and made it onto the Jim Schwartz Defense..but it was out of the pan and into the fire, or so it seemed. With eleven defensive backs on the roster, the Eagles cornerback corps was filled to the brim with a mix of talented young corners, all possessing different skill sets, trying to break onto the roster.
Watkins was quiet. Below the radar. Jalen Mills was the man stealing the show as Watkins’ grip on a roster spot started to slip..that was until, they moved him to Safety. The position was still heavily contested, Jenkins and McLeod had secured the starting roles long before Camp and Chris Maragos has a presence on special teams unheard of elsewhere..so that left Watkins, Ed Reynolds and sixth round pick Blake Countess.
But then, something clicked. Without having to be so prominent in run Defense or switch playing styles depending on situation, Watkins found his balance and began to walk the roster cut tightrope. Interceptions, pass deflections and big hits filled the final practices of Training camp as for the first time since being drafted, the name Jaylen Watkins was beginning to receive a lot of attention.
32 tackles in 2016 were followed by 13 during the Eagles Super Bowl winning season. The Eagles finally found peace at the position, with Watkins, Graham and McLeod rotating up-top, while Malcolm Jenkins cleaned up underneath.
History could be in line to repeat itself. Avonte Maddox spent his rookie season at just about every position possible, including Safety, where he had never played before.
After getting his feet wet with 28% of defensive snaps against the Titans, Schwartz doubled down on the rookie, who had never played the position until this moment. Not only did Maddox become the team’s LONE starting safety, holding down the fort in cover-3 scenarios, but was named the team’s sixth captain in his second start. Stunningly, his progress only inclined further as time went on.
Maddox spent time outside as a corner, but flashed most prominently at Safety. He was always around the ball, but we should’ve seen that part coming. Maddox was able to end his collegiate with 51 passes defensed despite being undersized, which says a lot about his desire and drive to outwork whoever stands in front of him
The ability to cross-train defensive backs has become a specialty for Jim Schwartz and Maddox is a shining example. To go from a rookie corner who had never played safety before, to one of the defenses top performers in a matter of weeks is just astounding. The 22-year old has an incredibly high ceiling and it won’t be that farfetched to assume that the Birds’ will keep him on the backline with Rodney McLeod next season, just as Jaylen Watkins once moved.
The other name to keep in mind here is, of course, Rasul Douglas. A much rangier defensive back, who just couldn’t seem to find a spot in favor of the Eagles coaches, no matter what he did. Leading the Eagles in interceptions, I spent most of last offseason making the case for him to bump up, but the coaching staff clearly
feel comfortable see him as a safety.
The Eagles have preached versatility and cross-training since the arrival of Jim Schwartz. So while another DB in the room would’ve been great for Cory Undlin, the Eagles already have more than enough Chefs in the Kitchen to cook up a Storm at Safety and may feel confident in letting that situation pan out.