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Marcus Epps is Making the Most of His Opportunity

The young Eagles safety has been a standout early in training camp

PHILADELPHIA - There was certainly some mixed messaging going on in the offseason when it came to Marcus Epps and his standing with the Eagles.

The organization clearly liked the fourth-year pro, who arrived in Philadelphia as a waiver-wire pickup from Minnesota during his rookie season.

He has slowly grown to the point that secondary coach Dennard Wilson purposefully carved out a role for the Southern California native in 2021 despite having two veterans he trusted in Rodney McLeod and Anthony Harris.

"It was an outstanding situation because I had depth," Wilson said. "I had a guy in Rodney McLeod I trusted. I had a guy in Anthony Harris who I trusted and Marcus is also one of those guys.

"And Marcus earned his keep."

That said, Howie Roseman made a significant play for star safety Marcus Williams in free agency before Baltimore went to a number the Eagles were not willing to meet and also kicked the tires on Tyrann Mathieu before ultimately settling for June pickup Jaquiski Tartt on a cost-effective insurance policy.

It's now clear, however, that the Eagles want Epps, 26, to grab the baton and run with it as the full-time replacement for McLeod, who is now in Indianapolis.

So far, so good as Epps has been a standout in camp, taking all the first-team reps next to either Harris, who missed some time early as he progressed from a recent bout with COVID, or third-year-pro K'Von Wallace.

Epps set the tone on the first day of practice in red-zone drills with the play of the day by undercutting Dallas Goedert to make a diving interception on a late Jalen Hurts throw.

“I’ve got a lot more confidence out there,” Epps said. “I feel like these first few days, I’ve been flying around. Like I said, I’m just trying to keep building on that every day because I haven’t arrived by any means, and I know that. I’ve still got a lot to learn.”

The Eagles' defensive minds seem cautiously optimistic that they've found an answer on the back end.

"The first thing I look for in a safety is reliability," defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon said when discussing Epps. "He's very reliable, smart, tough, and he has got a very unique skillset that you need, in my opinion, to play safety in the NFL today."

Wilson was already so impressed with Epps' development last season that the coach felt he had to put him on the field at times despite the presence of more proven options.

"The way I've been brought up in his game, you play your best 11 players, and you get them on the field," the secondary coach, who recently added the title of defensive passing game coordinator to his resume, said. "I also have the philosophy - even though it's 11 playing, you create roles for guys that deserve roles, and [Epps] played his role outstanding last year."

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Epps ended up playing in a career-high 48% of the team’s defensive snaps in 2021 while recording 56 tackles, five pass breakups, and an interception. In the part-time role, Pro Football Focus graded Epps as a top-20 safety, far outdistancing Harris, McLeod, and Tartt, who was in San Francisco last season.

The goal is to turn that kind of efficacy as a part-time player into a full-time one.

"It just feels different for me personally from having more game experience [last season]. I know what to expect," Epps said. "The game has kind of slowed down for me. So I’m not swimming out there, thinking of what my assignment is. I already know what that is. So now I’m thinking more of what the offense is going to run, situational things like that.

"I just feel a lot more comfortable."

Intelligence and hard work are the two intangibles that have become synonymous with Epps, who has his own gym - EBS Performance and Fitness - in Costa Mesa, California with his long-time trainer Kariff Byrd, someone he's so close to that Epps refers to Byrd as his uncle.

"My trainer and uncle from back home, we’ve been working together for forever," Epps said. "That’s one of the things that’s always been our vision for when we wanted to open up our own spot. So we’d always kind of bounce around in different places for training. We finally got that opportunity and just made it happen."

It's the hard work that turned Epps from walk-on at Wyoming, to NFL draft pick with Minnesota, and longshot with the Vikings behind Harrison Smith and Harris to presumed starter with the Eagles in four short years.

"Nobody works harder than Marcus," GM Howie Roseman said.

That sentiment applies to the gym and the film room.

“Epps is just a very smart player," slot corner Avonte Maddox said. "... He’s getting an opportunity, and he’s doing a great job with it.”

On paper, it looks like Roseman has built an impressive front seven on defense with the best cornerback trio the organization has had in years. The lone question mark to outsiders is safety but Philadelphia is starting to believe the answer was right under its nose all along.

"In 2022, the safety position looks different than when I got in the league in 2007," said Gannon. "You have to be able to cover, you have to be able to tackle, you have to have ball skills, you have to play zone, you have to process. That's a thinking position.

"[Epps] has all those tools."

-John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's Eagles Today and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Sports. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talker Jody McDonald, every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on YouTube.com and JAKIBSports.com. You can reach John at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen