Examining the NFC East: The Safeties

All eyes are on Rodney McLeod's healthy as the 2021 season approaches
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PHILADELPHIA - Our annual series examining the NFC East from a positional perspective with the help of league personnel sources will continue at safety, which could go in polar opposite directions for the Eagles in 2021.

If veteran Rodney McLeod is able to return from a second ACL tear in recent years and free-agent pickup Anthony Harris returns to his 2018 and 2019 form in Minnesota, the safety spot should be a position of strength for Jonathan Gannon.

The depth, though, is a concern with the top options behind the veterans being box safety K'Von Wallace, who didn't show much as a rookie last season, and center fielder Marcus Epps, who has a high football IQ but lacks the athleticism to cover significant ground in coverage.

"It’s all hands on deck," secondary coach Dennard Wilson said. "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."

The first installment of this series was on cornerbacks and be found here:

Examining the NFC East: Cornerbacks - Sports Illustrated ...

Here's how the Eagles stack up at safety within the division:

No. 4 - Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys are moving on from Xavier Woods at free safety and will need free-agent pickup Damontae Kazee or Reggie Robinson, a fourth-round pick in 2020, to step up opposite an underrated, physical performer in Donovan Wilson, who packs a punch but needs to be a bit more disciplined in run support. Jayron Kearse is also around to backup Wilson at strong safety.

Kazee, a former cornerback who has a history with new DC Dan Quinn dating back to Atlanta, was signed to start at free safety but is coming off a torn Achilles in October.

"I like Wilson and Kazee is an undersized former cornerback but I think they are better than last season because Quinn will help," a former AFC personnel executive said.

No. 3 - Philadelphia Eagles: The key is McLeod and his health. The veteran was injured in December and the season opener would be about nine months out from his surgery which is pushing the envelope a bit.

McLeod was already doing some on-field work in the spring but training camp will give the Eagles an opportunity to look at what they have in their young players, a group that includes Wallace, Epps, Grayland Arnold, and Elijah Riley.

The last name to keep in mind is free-agent acquisition Andrew Adams, whose main claim to fame is special teams.

If McLeod is ready to go for Week 1, he and Harris should be more than capable for Gannon. The depth is a concern to the outside, looking in, however.

"Who plays if McLeod isn't there?" a former AFC personnel exec pondered. "I'm not comfortable with Wallace or Epps and they are turning the LSU kid (JaCoby Stevens) into a linebacker. He might be their best option.

"Harris is a ball hawk. You saw last season [in Minnesota] he needs the pass rush."

No. 2 - Washington Football Team: There is a little uncertainty into how things will play out on the back end for Washington but the options seem OK on paper and there are multiple avenues for Ron Rivera to go.

Landon Collins has the big name but Kamren Curl was the WFT's best safety as a rookie seventh-round pick last season after Collins went down with a torn Achilles while Jeremy Reaves, originally an undrafted free agent signed by the Eagles out of South Alabama, really played well in limited snaps.

Coverage was never Collins' strength before the injury so his status moving forward is something that should be monitored. For now, pencil in Collins and Curl with Reaves and Trop Apke pushing for playing time.

"Curl was a nice surprise but I could see a market correction there, I think it's a limited group and they need Collins back at a high level," an NFC scout said.

No. 1 - New York Giants - The Giants have two solid projected starters in Jabrill Peppers and Logan Ryan and two younger options with upside in Xavier McKinney and Julian Love.

The concern would be man coverage with both and that's where McKinney fits, the 2020 second-round pick out of Alabama who missed all but six games of his rookie season with a fractured foot.

According to Pro Football Focus, McKinney’s overall grade was on pace to be the best of the rookie class through 212 snaps and his presence will enable Patrick Graham to morph into the big nickel as perhaps his base defense.

"McKinney has a chance to be really good," an AFC scout said. "The other two aren't bad as well."

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.