Hard to believe in retrospect as bad as the defense was, but 2015 was a banner year for the Eagles in terms of safety play. Malcolm Jenkins went to the Pro Bowl, and while Walter Thurmond's performance was overrated by many observers, the converted cornerback certainly brought welcomed stability to the back end. It was easily the Eagles' best pairing since Brian Dawkins last suited up for the club in '08.
Clearly, the powers that be weren't satisfied with merely having their best safeties in nearly a decade. The Eagles are now looking at quite possibly fielding the best duo in the entire NFL. Jenkins returns, armed with a contract extension too, and he'll be paired with one of the franchise's prize free agent additions, Rodney McLeod, who comes over from the Rams. McLeod may have been a somewhat anonymous piece in the St. Louis secondary, but Philly fans have fallen in love with his reputation for being a big hitter before he ever plays a game in midnight green.
It seems fairly apparent the Eagles have taken a huge step up at safety, although the unit is not without its issues. Let's be honest though, the McLeod signing likely outweighs anything negative that could've occurred during the offseason.
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2016 DEPTH CHART
Malcolm Jenkins, 28, 8th season, $5.666 million / Rodney McLeod, 26, 5th season, $2.6m / Chris Maragos, 29, 7th season, $1.7m / Ed Reynolds, 24, 2nd season, $525k / Blake Countess, 22, rookie, $482k
Here's a statistic for you. Over the past three seasons, there are only two safeties in the NFL with at least 184 solo tackles, 18 pass breakups, five interceptions and seven forced fumbles. One is McLeod. The other is Seattle Seahawks All-Pro Earl Thomas.
Thomas actually has a lot more tackles, pass defenses and picks during that span, so nobody is suggesting McLeod is quite on his level. Of course, there aren't many people who are either. Any way you look at it, there aren't a lot of safeties in the league who have made more plays than McLeod, who also boasts six fumble recoveries to his name during that span. Pair that nose for the football with Jenkins, who himself has 154 solo tackles, 25 pass breakups, five interceptions and four forced fumbles in the past two years alone, and you've got one dangerous combination.
McLeod is only 26, he's never missed a game as a pro, and unlike Thurmond, who performed admirably, he's an actual safety. He may be a tad undersized at 5'10", 195 pounds, but McLeod is the total package in terms of somebody who can make plays in coverage and lay somebody out with a big hit. That would make pretty much any secondary better.
The only departure was Thurmond, who wound up retiring from football at 28. He might've played for the right offer, but the Eagles and rest of the NFL had other ideas in mind. Thurmond was surprisingly adequate at safety considering he had never played the position prior to last season, although there was a moment or two every week where his lack of experience would seem to come back and bite the defense. No doubt, Thurmond would've improved over time, as he has the athletic ability and intelligence. McLeod, on the other hand, could become an immediate star here.
The Eagles did spend a pair of late draft picks on versatile defensive backs, at least one of which — sixth-rounder Blake Countess out of Auburn — appears to be in the mix as a backup safety. Even if Countess beats out an Ed Reynolds for a roster spot, the depth is a bit concerning to say the least.
To his credit, Reynolds showed dramatic improvement in 2015, appearing in six games with three starts after spending the entirety of his rookie year on the practice squad. Yet whether it was Reynolds or special teams ace Chris Maragos — one of which often filled in on the Eagles' nickel package — the play behind the starters was competent at best. True, worse has been written of safeties, but it doesn't inspire a great deal of confidence.
Nor do we even know if Reynolds or Maragos can play behind a wide-9 front, which caused problems for the likes of Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman many moons ago. It's a good thing there's another body in the mix with Countess, but a rookie doesn't necessarily strengthen the unit all that much.
One might envision the Eagles using a lot of high-low looks at safety, with McLeod playing sort of a centerfielder role over the top and Jenkins lining up in the box. One has to wonder if there will be any growing pains as these two learn to play alongside one another, and especially for Jenkins, who will be new to the added responsibilities behind a wide-9.
Granted, it's not a super serious concern. Jenkins has proven he's as versatile as any safety in the league, with the ability to help in run support, play zone, even move to corner and cover receivers man-to-man. McLeod has experience with the wide-9, although to expect him to come in and immediately form the best tandem in the NFL from Week 1 might be a tad lofty. Actually, it's going to be fun to see how these highly cerebral athletes adapt to the scheme and evolve as a unit together, because it's that growth that could determine whether they're going to be merely good, or great.
BETTER OR WORSE?
Questions of scheme fit or chemistry aside, there's really no debate. The Eagles upgraded the talent at the safety position this offseason, at least as far as the top of the depth chart is concerned, and the back end doesn't appear to have got any worse. We're not saying McLeod is the second coming of Dawkins or anything, but he and Jenkins are both proven playmakers who can also put a ball-carrier or receiver flat on their back — exactly the kind of fierce combo that has long been missing from this secondary. BETTER