Eagles Positional Spotlight: Safeties

The Philadelphia secondary received a massive face-lift this offseason. After saying farewell to Eagles legend Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod will become the de facto veteran voice of a new wave of Philly safeties. The team will now have to cobble together a lineup that has limited experience playing together during what is already a shortened summer. The redeeming quality is that there is no lack of athleticism at the back end of the Eagles defense. Versatile playmakers litter a backline that will be one of the more entertaining position groups to watch in 2020.

While there certainly will be entrenched starters, it’s likely we’ll see a melange of different players occupying various safety or hybrid positions throughout the season. The third safety position has been an important one for the Eagles for years now and that certainly won’t change with a high profile free agent and a championship-caliber rookie being added to the mix. Safeties have also been a big part of the Eagles’ special teams, which could open up a spot for a specialist to squeeze onto the roster. From top to bottom, the safety position is an intriguing one in Philadelphia.

Starters

FS | Rodney McLeod

McLeod has become “ol’ faithful” for the Eagles after coming over from the Rams in 2016. His positioning and range make him the perfect free safety for Jim Schwartz’s defense. The terrible overall performance from the Philadelphia secondary has cast an admittedly unfair light on McLeod, who has been one of its steadiest performers.

For the most part, we know what we’re getting from McLeod. He’s a smart player with a motor that carries him all over the field. However, in 2020 he will have to wear a different hat — one of the defensive leaders. Rodney has always been a vocal vet, but with Malcolm Jenkins in the ‘Big Easy’ he will have to be the glue that holds the secondary together. That is especially true when considering his partner will be transitioning to a position he hasn’t played in 5 years.

SS | Jalen Mills

While Mills’ play has had its ebbs and flows in his tenure with the Eagles, he has the opportunity to reinvent himself as he returns to the position he played in college. The strong safety position really encompasses Jalen’s best attributes. He’s a sure and forceful tackler that can work through blocks and traffic and he has the length and physicality to hang around with tight ends and bigger slot receivers.

It also should hide some of his weaknesses. Limitations in long speed and a tendency to bite on double moves have plagued the first four years of his NFL career. He will now have the opportunity to play closer to the line of scrimmage and capitalize on his 87th percentile agility score and hard-nosed demeanor.

Theoretically, this is a fantastic move for both Mills and the Eagles defense. However, he will have to transition to a position he hasn’t played professionally and will be hampered by a shortened offseason. Being a “Jim Schwartz player” he will be afforded some patience as he gets accustomed to the role, but with so much talent behind him chomping at the bit, his leash will be a short one.

There is no doubt that he will continue to be a vocal and emotional leader of the defense. His edge and grit will be a welcome presence in a secondary that will have to carve out their own identity. There may be some early guffaws, but you can expect Mills to at least make his mistakes going a million miles an hour.

Nickel | Will Parks

He may currently sit behind Jalen Mills on the depth chart, but “Philly” Will will have no trouble seeing the field with the Eagles in 2020. He’s listed as a safety, but the combination of Jim Schwartz’s scheme and his versatility will place him all over the formation. That won’t be anything new for Parks, as he played the same jack-of-all-trades role in Denver. He may also have the opportunity to get the jump on Mills, who will have to acclimate to his new responsibilities.

When considering Parks’ skill set, it’s more of a question of what can’t he do. Despite spending four years in a Broncos uniform, the biggest knock on his game is his lack of true starting experience. He was never a full-time starter in Denver, but he was never lacking for snaps. Plus, he will join a Philadelphia defense that now hangs its hat on versatility and athleticism.

In years past it has become apparent how important the third safety position is to the Eagles. In addition to his time spent in that role, it’s likely that the young man spends some time at slot corner and fulfills SAM duties on passing downs. With he, Jalen Mills, Rodney McLeod, and rookie K’Von Wallace, Jim Schwartz will be able to disguise coverage and blitzes like never before.

On top of that, it’s time that this clip resurfaced. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Rotational Players

K’Von Wallace

The more time passes, the more Wallace is looking like a huge draft steal for the Eagles. He registered a 97th percentile SPARQ score, including a 87th percentile, burst score and 85th percentile agility score (per PlayerProfiler). Last season he was one of five FBS players to record 70+ tackles, 10+ passes defended, and more than two interceptions. Since 2017, he has recorded an average Pro Football Focus coverage grade of 92.1, the best of all safeties in the 2020 draft class. Plus, he had a missed tackle rate of just 7.9%, which is among the top in the class. Credit our own Thomas Ringgaard for digging up most of these stats.

Fortunately for the Eagles, Wallace was overshadowed by his teammate and uber athlete Isaiah Simmons. Frankly, there’s no reason he should have fallen to the fourth round, but here we are. Wallace’s biggest shortcoming is his size. At 5’11, 206 lbs he’s bigger than Rodney McLeod and heavier than Jalen Mills. He may not have the smooth hips or awareness to constantly occupy the deep thirds, but that’s not what the Eagles brought him into do.

For now, the rookie will be a fantastic addition to the special teams unit while he learns behind Parks and Mills. Whatever role those two fill, it is likely that Wallace is in for the same. As he grows into the position, he will be an electric move piece for Jim Schwartz to implement in all kinds of manners.

Hopefuls

Rudy Ford

Ford was brought over from Arizona before last season for his special teams’ prowess. He’s a steady tackler with a nose for the football and some upside as a box safety. One of the few players that showed no fear tackling Leonard Fournette in college, Ford brought that energy to the big leagues. He filled his special teams’ role admirably, playing 77.2% of the team’s special teams snaps before being placed on IR.

When the Eagles were short-staffed, he was even tossed out on defense for 17 plays. 15 of those plays came against New England, right before his season was lost to injury. Even if it was due to necessity, Ford filled in effectively and will certainly be given an opportunity to fight for a roster spot. The battle between he and Marcus Epps will be one to watch. The Eagles may very well take a fifth safety for special teams reasons.

Marcus Epps

Epps took a backseat to Ford for special teams snaps until the latter’s season was lost due to injury. However, that was also a point in the season that Philadelphia was short on safeties and Epps was the beneficiary. He played 98 defensive snaps over the last six weeks of the season, a bulk of which (33) came in a crucial week 17 game against the Giants.

As of now, it seems as if Ford has the upper hand, if only due to his tackling which is obviously an essential component of special teams. However, on the defensive side of the football Epps fits the mold old of a single-high safety better than Ford does. With so many safeties on the roster that prefer to be in the box, this may give Epps an in on his route to the final 53.

UDFA’s

Grayland Arnold

Beginning as a corner at Baylor, Arnold transitioned to safety in 2019 which is where he will play for the Eagles. The undrafted rookie mostly occupied the nickel role in his final season. At 5’9″, 186 lbs there are some size concerns, but Arnold makes his money in coverage more so than run support.

There’s something intangible about Arnold’s game. He’s a very instinctual player, who just seems to be able to be around the football. He shines when he can capitalize on his recognition in smaller spaces. Therefore he projects much better recouping the role of nickel safety as opposed to playing the deep zones. He also fits the slot corner role well. That versatility will earn him points with the coaching staff.

As a defender, he’s a fluid man cover player that’s pesky at the catch point. He posted six interceptions in his final season to go along with 2 PBUs in 13 games. In terms of his chances at a roster spot, it’s telling that Howie Roseman brought up Arnold unprompted in two different WIP interviews.

At this point, he’ll be a practice squad candidate, but his special teams’ value may earn him a call up at some point in the season. However, there are some injury concerns with Arnold and his ability to stay healthy will be crucial when and if that call up does come.

Elijah Riley

Listed as a corner at Army, it looks as if Riley will make the move to safety in the NFL. It will be a relatively seamless move as he was used all over the field in college. He made an immediate impact in college as a true freshman and never looked back. He will likely be another nickel/slot corner hybrid but is a bigger body than Arnold at 6’0″, 205 lbs.

Riley is an intriguing prospect who excels in coverage but has also racked up tackles his entire college career. According to PFF, he allowed a completion percentage of just 45.4% and forced incompletions on 21.8% of passes thrown his way. He added 79 tackles and led Army in tackles for loss with six. With those kind of numbers, it makes sense that he was a semi-finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award.

In comparison to Arnold, Riley is bigger, more physical and has proven to be more durable. Whereas Arnold’s football IQ and quickness trumps that of Riley. They both play the same position and will have to earn their keep through special teams. Both will likely start the season on the practice squad, but the competition between the two may at some point mean a shot at the roster.

There’s no reason — aside from experience — that either of these players could eventually push Ford or Epps for special teams snaps. Even at the bottom of this list, there is some excitement.

Bottom Line

Buckle your seat belts, folks. For better or for worse, the Eagles have assembled a safety room of the most versatile athletes they could find. While there will certainly be an adjustment period, there is a lot to be excited about when looking at the names on this list. Howie Roseman decided nobody was going to outrun the Birds in 2020 and has done everything he could to make that a reality.

The Eagles have plenty of depth at the position and some of the fringe players from last year’s roster may not make the cut. The top three safeties are lacking chemistry, but the hope is that they are able to overcome that by sheer athleticism. Rodney McLeod will have big shoes to fill in taking charge of the defense and Jalen Mills will have to retrace his steps in a hurry to uncover the former safety within. Regardless of the outcome, it will be an incredibly fun group to watch, both in the offseason and come season start.

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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