Even before the season ended and Chip Kelly was tabbed to take the place of the dearly departed Andy Reid, it was assumed by many that the back seven of the defense — and more specifically the safety position — could get quite a facelift.
The Philadelphia Eagles defense as a whole was giving up big chunks of yardage and long touchdowns at a historic pace. Though a fair amount of that can be explained away via poor cornerback play — so long, Charmin Brigade, a defense built on the wide-9 — which is all the more ridiculous because it’s really just an alignment for the defensive line, not a scheme, the turmoil created by defensive coordinator Juan Castillo’s (undeserved) firing then defensive line coach Jim Washburn’s (absolutely necessary) firing.
However, at least a portion of the blame must be placed at the feet of the safeties.
Defensive back’s coach Todd Bowles — who was then promoted to defensive coordinator to take Castillo’s place — did his best to help the unit by changing up the coverages so that the safeties did not have run-first responsibilities on the same play that they had deep coverage responsibilities (via Iggles Blog). But his promotion seemed only to further confuse the situation — he ended up being party to a dismal 4-12 season that saw Reid’s tenure end after 14 years and Kelly arrive triumphantly into the eye of the Philadelphia sports storm.
In an effort to shore up the safety position, Howie Roseman and the front office used every option at their disposal. Free agency was busy as they brought in former Patriot and second round draft choice Patrick Chung, and former Super Bowl winning Giant, safety Kenny Philips. Let’s get this straight right off the bat, since I’ve seen some chatter to the contrary — anything the Eagles are able to get out of Philips is pure gravy. He’s got a degenerative knee issue that was bad enough for the Giants to overlook his immense talent and first round pedigree and let him walk for nothing.
He’s here on a one-year deal with no guaranteed money, which is basically like the Eagles saying, “Show us you’re healthy enough to continue to play in this league”. So don’t pin your hopes on Philips. In fact, there have already been reports of him taking rest days for his knees in OTAs. Bottom line? He’s got a better chance of not making the team at all than he does of being the opening day starter.
Chung, on the other hand, very well could be your starting strong safety. He’s a fairly athletic player with strong character that has displayed leadership already in his short time with the team. He’s not afraid to stick his nose in on running plays and is a good, if not great, pass defender. The problem is that Bill Belichick is not prone to giving up on quality players, especially those who are only 25 and are still talented and capable, even if they are injury prone (Chung has missed 12 games in the last two years). Time will tell but Chung could be a steal and a long time starter for the team, or he could fizzle and continue showing the battered confidence he left New England with.
In the draft, the team brought in the uber-athletic Earl Wolff. This years draft crop of safeties looked mighty deep, so Howie and Chip plumbed those depths, selecting the former NC State standout in Round 5, a player who they later claimed to have considered picking in Round 4. Post-draft, this pick seemed to get a lot of positive reviews. He was a team captain and he claims Brian Dawkins as his idol.
Hear that? That’s the sound of music playing in the ears of Eagles fans who have been desperate for quality safety play since Dawk and to a lesser extent, Quintin Mikell, left the fold.
Meanwhile, a few familiar faces have remained. Colt Anderson was resigned to a one-year deal, and Kurt Coleman and David Sims have stuck around as well. But, barring major injuries or upsets, none of these players will be a starter. Anderson and Coleman are a fantastic set of back-up safeties that excel on special teams and take their roles very seriously.
Sims is a young journeyman with an admirable background story who arguably played fairly well in his one start last season in New Orleans. I think he should get more of a chance to show what he’s got, but he’s limited athletically and is far from a player the team should count on.
Nate Allen on the other hand is a holdover who some thought might very well be gone depending on how free agency and the draft shook out. I think Nate is a very talented player and because of injury deserves a further shot to show whether or not he has the instincts and recognition skills to be a player in this league. Much like Brandon Graham, before getting injured his rookie year he was performing at a very high level.
But, he’s also flawed and hasn’t been able to regain that early form and at some point draft status and potential stop being enough to keep even the most talented players around. With a new coaching staff and new scheme in place he’s got a clean slate and a fresh chance to show that he deserves to be a starting safety in this league.
So, there you have it. Options abound at the safety position for the Eagles, though none of them are particularly appealing. So far, Chung and Allen have been getting the majority of reps in minicamp and OTAs, but if Chip is to be believed, it really is a free for all at the moment, with the team — and more specifically new defensive coordinator Bill Davis — no doubt hoping that one or two players will eventually establish themselves.
My humble opinion is that Phillips will not make the team and Allen and Chung will be the starters. Coleman and Anderson will be the main backups, playing predominantly on special teams while filling in for some starts here and there. Wolff will work his way into the rotation as the season progresses, especially in the red zone where Bill Davis will run some three-safety sets.