Free agency is officially seven days away which means it’s time to roll up the sleeves and start digging into the bargain bucket. The Eagles have around -$30M in cap space right now but it’s a number that’s tumbling as the team scrambles to get under the cap. By the time they do, the safety position is one that could be set to receive a slight makeover.
There is no long-term security at the position right now. Rodney McLeod is in the final year of his contract, Jalen Mills is a pending free agent, and the rest of the position is filled with young and unproven talent. While they may develop, if the Eagles can find players cheaper than their current veterans to bridge the gap, it would go a long way in keeping strain off of what is a very inexperienced group that now has to learn a new scheme.
Here are five names to watch out for when free agency opens on March 17th.
This is probably the name that Eagles fans will be most intrigued by since he’s almost the perfect fit here. Having previously worked with new Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, Malik Hooker is still only 24-years-old and is the perfect low-risk, high-reward signing.
He’s yet to play a full 16 game season and is far from the league’s most consistent safety, but he’s easily among the better safeties in the league when healthy and would act as a great running-mate for Rodney McLeod in cover-2 looks while bringing a ball-hawking prowess that the secondary currently lacks.
It should be noted that Hooker is recovering from a torn Achilles injury and while this is concerning, the Eagles wouldn’t be looking at him to be a guaranteed starter. Hooker will come at a cheap price and if Gannon can get the best out of him then he could easily be among free agency’s biggest steals. With youth on his side and a clear upside he flashes when healthy, Hooker should be at the top of the list of players to talk to.
Keanu Neal has long been one of my favorite players to watch…when healthy (noticing a pattern yet?). After season-ending injuries in 2018 and 2019, Neal bounced back in a big way last year to show that he still has plenty left to give. 100 tackles, 9 TFL, 3 QB hits, and 1 INT should paint a picture pretty enough to show exactly why Howie Roseman should start knocking.
Neal is easily among the top box safeties in the league when healthy and is a stout run defender. Like Hooker, he is still far from entering his prime at just 25-years-old. If the Eagles decide to part ways with Jalen Mills, this 6’1, 215 lbs, thumper could be the perfect replacement.
Speak of the devil, it’s easy to forget that Jalen Mills is a pending free agent. He re-signed with the Eagles on a one-year deal last offseason and changed position to Safety.
After a game against the Pats in 2019 showed Jim Schwartz all he needed to see, Mills went a long way in negating the loss of Malcolm Jenkins, setting a new career-high in tackles and added an impressive 5 QB hits and 3 passes defensed to his resume.
His finger-wagging can get annoying at the best of times and there’s no doubting that he can still be hit-and-miss in coverage, but he’s now an experienced player, vocal leader in the locker-room, and a full-time starter available at a cheap price.
A weak link with new Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen is the cherry on what is a very big cake.
Jenkins has been a starter in each of the past two seasons and took over from Derwin James last season, proving he could hold the fort. He led the Chargers in defensive snaps in 2019, while finishing second on the team tackles one year later (84), adding 4 passes defensed and a pair of picks in the process.
Jenkins can play both safety roles and last year saw him pushed to new limits when filling in for his prolific young teammate. His tackling form is concerning but at this point, it’s almost expected for Eagles players to fly in and hope for the best.
Going from a crowded young secondary in L.A. to a room filled with unproven talent could be a great move for a player who has flashed potential over the past two years but needs to find long-term security in a setting where his ceiling isn’t capped by a sheet of glass.
If you haven’t seen Jaquiski Tartt play but were to take a wild guess about why the Eagles would be interested based on how this article has gone so far, you’d be absolutely right. He’s a little older than the other guys at 29-years-old and has missed time in four consecutive seasons (a combined 28 games). However, the injuries haven’t been indicative of a durability issue. Turf toe, a shoulder injury, and a broken arm all landed him on IR, but none of them are really linked and he wouldn’t be relied upon to pick up a starting role anyway.
Tartt played in 7 games last season, picking up 30 tackles and knocking down 4 passes. He’s spent the majority of his career working as a box safety and won’t offer the same ball-production as other names in this list, but he’s a much better run-defender and offers coverage strong enough to play both roles suitably.
The Eagles should pursue Tartt if they intend on giving someone like K’Von Wallace or Grayland Arnold exposure next season. A veteran with Super Bowl experience who can tick all the right boxes when healthy, it’s another low-risk option that could just add some extra security to the position if the young players don’t develop as quickly in a new scheme.
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