Eagles Training Camp Preview: The Safeties

The Eagles seems set in the short-term on the back end but need some developmental talent to step up
Author:
Publish date:

When it comes to the safety position, the Eagles know where they want to be in the short term but there’s no guarantee they can get there by Week 1 as veteran Rodney McLeod continues to rehab from a torn ACL suffered in December of last year.

That said, the long-term questions are a far bigger issue.

The plan is to reunite McLeod with his former roommate and protege at the University of Virginia, the ball-hawking Anthony Harris, who comes over from Minnesota on a one-year, prove-it deal.

"Anthony and I played together at Virginia for one year," McLeod told SI.com's Eagle Maven. "I was a senior, he was a freshman. So I was kind of like a big brother to him, in a sense, mentored him.

"And the coaches told me right then and there, once you leave, man, he's gonna be the guy. And he proved that he had a hell of a career at Virginia and once he got his shot in the league, he thrived man."

RELATED: Philadelphia Eagles safeties Anthony Harris, Rodney McLeod ...

The thought is that new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon will play a lot of Cover-2 and Cover-3 looks for a number of reasons which include protecting a cornerback group that lacks proven talent after Darius Slay and playing to the strength of the DC's top options at the position as both McLeod and Harris excel in coverage.

"I was super excited when [Harris] hit me up right before everybody got the word that he was coming [to Philadelphia]," said McLeod. "And you know, we've been building since he got here. Really just talking ball, talking about how we both will be used and looking forward to this year man and us being able to put our resume out there as a tandem."

ACL rehab is typically nine months in the modern environment and McLeod is looking at Week 1 in Atlanta as a viable option, although it’s unlikely he’ll be cleared for contact until late this summer.

"That is my goal," said the veteran safety, who turned 31 this offseason. "I want to be available for my team. Not only for a game but for all 17 [games]. That's my motivation. I have all intentions to be there Week 1."

If the Eagles tap the brakes on McLeod, it will likely be a battle between Marcus Epps and K’Von Wallace to fill in. Epps is more in the mold of McLeod and Harris in that he’s a center fielder type while Wallace is better suited in the box, something that could give Gannon and new secondary coach Dennard Wilson, a different look.

DEPTH CHART:

S - Anthony Harris

S - Rodney McLeod (rehabbing from torn ACL)

S3 Marcus Epps; S4 K’Von Wallace; S5 Andrew Adams; S6 Grayland Arnold; S7 Elijah Riley

WHAT’S CHANGED: Harris arrives from Minnesota where he was a great complement to an All-Pro player in Harrison Smith on the back end, at least until last season when the Vikings’ defensive line went off the rails due to injury, a COVID opt-out, and free agency.

Harris is a one-time franchise-tag player on a one-year, prove-it deal with the hopes of getting back to free agency and big money by 2022.

The other newcomer is free agent Andrew Adams, who is more of a special-teams signing designed to help replace Rudy Ford, who signed in Jacksonville after becoming one of the better punt gunners in the NFL.

Gone are Ford and Jalen Mills, who got a pretty solid free agency deal in New England after the move from cornerback to safety in Philadelphia to replace Malcolm Jenkins.

Wilson also steps in as the secondary coach, replacing Marquand Manuel. Safety-specific coach Tim Hauck is also out with DK McDonald assisting Wilson in more of a total secondary role after Jay Valai made a quick pit stop in the offseason before backtracking and taking a cornerback coaching job at Alabama.

Eagles DB coach Dennard Wilson

DB coach Dennard Wilson

“I look at the whole safety group. It’s all hands on deck,” Wilson noted. “Anthony has played. A lot of other guys have played sparingly. When we get back, who’s going to do the job to the best of their ability? Who’s going to be productive? It’ll (sort) itself out.

“Anthony is good, he’s good for the room. Rodney is good for the room because they have played a lot of ball in this league, and have had success. But we got a lot of young guys that are hungry, that actually want to get on the field and produce. So if Rodney’s out, all it does is create more depth. Guys get more reps, guys get better. You learn by doing. You learn by being out there. That’s what we’re going to ask them to do. The best man will end up playing.”

HIGHLIGHT REEL: No one knows much about Gannon just yet.

And what we do know is largely superficial: he was the cornerback coach in Indy from the outset of the Frank Reich era, his first full-time position coach gig after being the assistant defensive backs coach under Mike Zimmer in Minnesota when former four-time Pro Bowl defensive back and a 20-year coaching veteran Jerry Gray was leading the room.

At the same time Gannon was ramping up his coaching career with the Vikings, Harris was just starting his journey as a player coming in as an undrafted player.

Harris wasn't your run-of-the-mill UDFA, however. He had led the nation in interceptions as a junior with eight, the most at Virginia since Ronde Barber. Moreso, Harris was expected to be drafted until a torn labrum that required surgery raised some medical red flags.

A potential Day 2 grade turned into priority free agency and Harris was lucky enough to choose wisely, not only learning from Gray and Gannon but two high-football IQ safeties in All-Pro Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo, who was in Philadelphia for part of the 2019 season when Schwartz and Hauck, raved about Sendejo's understanding of the game.

By 2017, Harris got his opportunity to play when Sendejo went down with a groin injury and quickly turned into one of the better center fielders in the NFL, tied for the league lead in INTs by 2019 with six.

Harris was so good that season the Vikings used their franchise tag on him for 2020. Injuries, COVID, and free-agency attrition turned the Vikings from a top-five defense into a bottom-give one and Harris' reputation took a hit with it.

Add the context of no Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr, Xavier Rhodes, and Trae Waynes, it was Smith, Harris, and Eric Kendricks carrying the Minnesota defense. Even with all that attrition, had Kendricks not hurt his calf and miss the final month the Vikings were probably going to be playoff-bound.

Harris was a big part of that, but context is often lost when weighed against production and the Eagles weighed those explanations with inside intelligence from Gannon and felt that at 29, Harris was the type of Phase 2 free agent that could turn into a boom.

“Successful defenses, they require that a lot,” Harris said. “I’m just here to be utilized in any way they see fit and that helps the team be successful.”

CAMP BATTLES

Adams’ projected roster spot will be more about Michael Clay’s special teams’ units rather than Wilson’s safety plans so the young players like Grayland Arnold and Elijah Riley may also need to make their push there.

Epps is interesting because he could be an opening-day starter if McLeod isn’t ready to go and he could also be on the waive wire with a poor summer.

ROCKY: THE LONGSHOT

Riley, a 2020 undrafted free out of Army, has some versatility to him and the new coaching staff probably helps bubble players like Riley because there isn’t as much skin in the game when it comes to pedigree.

WHO STAYS ON THE 53?

The pen can be used with Harris, McLeod, and likely Wallace, the latter more so because Howie Roseman will be the one picking the final 53. Call Epps a pencil player who has a leg up because his strength is coverage, and he has a high football IQ coupled with a background in the Minnesota scheme. For now, the signing of Adams indicates the Eagles value him as a special teams player.

WHO GOES?

Arnold and Riley, both undrafted rookies from 2020, will both be earmarked for the practice squad as Year 2 of their development takes shape.

John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on both PhillyVoice.com and YouTube. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen

Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.