Eagles Face Crucial Decisions on Future at Safety Position

PHILADELPHIA, PA – OCTOBER 03: Philadelphia Eagles free safety Rodney McLeod (23) celebrates a turnover during the game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs on October 3, 2021 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire)

The Philadelphia Eagles enter the offseason with exceptional draft capital and a relatively flexible salary cap situation that will allow general manager Howie Roseman to address some of the holes on the returning roster.

Rodney McLeod and Anthony Harris, the two starting safeties in 2021, are both impending free agents. The rest of the depth chart doesn’t feature a safety with a legitimate starter’s pedigree. Roseman and the Eagles will need to evaluate the role the safeties played in 2021, the need to re-sign McLeod and/or Harris, the future of Marcus Epps and K’Von Wallace, and the priority to acquire a safety through the draft or free agency.

Eagles Safeties in 2021

McLeod has played six of his ten NFL seasons in Philadelphia. The Eagles have counted on him as a veteran leader over the past two seasons after the loss of Malcolm Jenkins, and he made key contributions to the late-season playoff push in 2021 with critical interceptions in consecutive games against the New York Giants in Week 16 and Washington Football Team in Week 17.

He will turn 32 in June, and he suffered two torn ACLs that ended his 2018 and 2020 seasons early. While he still brought value in 2021, the organization showed no reluctance to let their two most successful safeties of the 21st century, Jenkins and Brian Dawkins, walk away in the later stages of their careers. McLeod looks likely to become the next Super Bowl LII hero to depart from Philadelphia. 

Harris started 14 games in 2021 after signing a one-year contract last offseason. It would be plausible to offer another one-year contract to the 30-year-old Harris to extend the stop-gap solution, but the Eagles will likely explore younger options.

Epps progressed into a reliable role as a rotational safety in 2021, especially during the second half of the season when the team made its playoff push. The Eagles have done a good job developing the former sixth-round pick since nabbing him from the Minnesota Vikings in November 2019. 

Even if McLeod and Harris both leave in 2022, the Eagles should not become overreliant on their development of a player like Epps with considerable limitations. They need to address the two starting safety positions and keep Epps in the same rotational role that suited him well in 2021.

Wallace faded from the safety rotation when Epps stepped up in 2021. The Clemson product didn’t play a defensive snap in eight consecutive games from Weeks 9-17. After spending a fourth-round pick on him in 2020, the Eagles will likely expect Wallace to play a role on special teams moving forward.

Jared Mayden and JaCoby Stevens are unlikely to play significant roles on defense in 2022.

History of Eagles Tendencies at Safety Position

During his postseason press conference, Roseman stood by his strategy of emphasis on certain positions in his roster construction. His confidence reinforces the notion that the organization’s past tendencies should be used as indicators for their future plans.

“I think we have a philosophy on how to build this team, a philosophy that we think has been successful. Obviously, you’d like more championships every time you’re out there, but we’re going to stay committed to the way we think to build the team.”

-Howie Roseman

The Eagles haven’t used a first-round pick on a safety since 1980, and Roseman has shied away from the big splash in free agency at the safety position in recent years. Instead, they’ve focused on safety as a priority in the middle rounds and signed cheaper options on the free-agent market. 

They invested draft capital most heavily on the safety position in 2010 and 2011. They selected Nate Allen 35th overall in 2010 with the pick acquired in the Donovan McNabb trade. While Allen started 69 games in five seasons in Philadelphia, his play was underwhelming. Jaiquawn Jarrett, taken in the second round in 2011, proved to be a disastrous pick. The Eagles cut him from their final roster before the beginning of his third NFL season.

They got minimal contributions from draft selections Jaylen Watkins, Earl Wolff, and Ed Reynolds, all selected during Chip Kelly’s tenure as head coach. J.R. Reed, Sean Considine, and Quinton Demps were three fourth-round picks who made suitable contributions at safety during the tenure of Andy Reid. 

Roseman also drafted Jalen Mills in 2016 and Jordan Poyer in 2013. Mills played cornerback for the majority of his tenure in Philadelphia, and Poyer moved on after one season before reaching his NFL prime.

The Eagles signed Harris to a one-year deal for $5 million in 2021. The veteran came at a discount after a down season with the Minnesota Vikings in 2020. Roseman also brought in Andrew Adams in 2021, Will Parks in 2020, and Andrew Sendejo in 2019 as inexpensive free-agent safeties. None of the three played a full season.

The addition of Jenkins in 2014 was Roseman’s most noteworthy free-agent signing at safety, but the long-time defensive leader wasn’t viewed in the top tier of the NFL at his position yet at that point in his career. Fans and media called for the Eagles to sign a big name like Jairus Byrd or T.J. Ward instead, but they wisely elected for the cheaper option in Jenkins.

Eagles Options in 2022 Offseason

If the Eagles do ultimately lose McLeod and Harris, it will create an immediate need for starting safeties. Kyle Hamilton of the University of Notre Dame will be one of the top players at the NFL Draft in April, and Jesse Bates III of the Cincinnati Bengals might test the waters in free agency after the Super Bowl. However, given the lack of top-end resources invested in the safety position in the modern era, the Eagles are unlikely to use a first-round pick on a safety or sign a high-priced safety in free agency.

The stockpile of first-round draft picks could provide them with the flexibility to address a position that isn’t their top priority with one of their own picks at 51 or 83 overall or another potentially acquired pick.

Free safety Jaquan Brisker from Penn State and safety/cornerback Daxton Hill from Michigan are creeping higher in some mock drafts, and both have a chance to become late first-round picks. The Eagles would likely hold off until 51 if they have interest in either Big 10 standout.

Lewis Cine was one of the defensive heroes in the National Champion for the Georgia Bulldogs. He will likely be available on the second day of the draft if the Eagles are looking for a playmaker with a championship pedigree.

Jalen Pitre from Baylor, Jordan Battle from Alabama, Bubba Bolden from Miami (FL), and Kolby Harvell-Peel are other safeties projected in the early or mid rounds that could be options for Philadelphia if they’re looking for long-term building blocks at the safety position. 

Entering the season counting on rookie starters isn’t ideal, and the Eagles will likely spend money on a safety in free agency even if it isn’t on McLeod or Harris. In addition to Bates, Marcus Williams and Tyrann Mathieu will be other lucrative options on the market.

Marcus Maye is coming off an Achilles injury, but he could pursue a one-year deal at a bargain similar to the way Harris did in 2021. He will turn 29 before the season begins, so he likely wouldn’t be a long-term solution. Devin McCourty and Kareem Jackson are two more aging free-agent safeties who wouldn’t provide much of an alternative to McLeod and Harris.

Justin Reid will likely look for a change of scenery away from the Houston Texans, and the Eagles had their eyes on him ahead of the 2018 NFL Draft, according to Bo Wulf of The Athletic. Pro Football Focus estimates that the former third-round pick would command a three-year, $27 million contract.

The process could change based on the possibility of Gannon moving on to a head coaching role or a major trade that impacts the Eagles’ draft positioning. However, expect to see Roseman continue the youth movement in Philadelphia while sticking to his style of evaluation at the safety position.

Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire