Eagles Better or Worse 2015: Safety


The 700 Level’s annual Philadelphia Eagles training camp preview returns. We’re taking an in-depth look at Birds position by position and asking whether the club got better or worse. Check out the introduction for more details on the series.



Fewer X-Plays / Cory Undlin

Let’s be honest: the Eagles didn’t necessarily go out and get better personnel at safety. That doesn’t automatically mean the personnel they have won’t get better.

One beacon of hope for the group is new defensive backs coach Cory Undlin, who has received a great deal of praise from several players in the secondary since his arrival. Much of the talk about Undlin has revolved around teaching his technique, which, by all accounts, the players have really taken to his tutelage. But where Undlin wants these improvements reflected on Sundays is in the numbers, specifically as it relates to “X-plays”—as in extra yards.

The Eagles surrendered 72 completions over 20 yards and 18 completions over 40 yards in 2014, both figures good for the most in the NFL. Reuben Frank for CSNPhilly.com writes no defense had allowed a higher number of 40-yard completions in one season in 10 years. Undlin believes these plays can be reduced with the help of proper coaching.

"I believe every X-play that we’re giving up, at some point in the down, was the result of poor technique somewhere in the down," Undlin said. "The guy fell down, somebody got picked, they just threw the ball over your head.

That last part—they just threw the ball over your head—is the key phrase, as more often than not it means the safety was out of position. Just think back on all the times Nate Allen essentially watched a big play happen last season.

That’s a touchdown.

That’s a game-winning touchdown.

Those two plays only appear to be identical, I swear.

You get the idea. This is not to solely pick on Allen, who is probably closer to a league average-safety than many people realize, and fled to the Oakland Raiders as a free agent anyway. The fact of the matter is defensive coordinator Bill Davis admitted he could’ve done a better job with the calls in the secondary.

“You learn and it really evolves as the season goes along, the calls and things that were working maybe at the beginning or the mid-part of the season, because of injuries or whatever happened, you’ve got to tweak it a little bit. Could I have tweaked it more? Probably.

Regardless of who lines up at safety, a scheme emphasis on taking away backbreaking X-plays should serve the Eagles well. Given some of the concerns back there, that’s likely for the best.



Prospects / Earl Wolff

It was only last summer when Wolff was expected to compete with Allen for a starting job. That seems like a long time ago now.

Wolff appeared in 11 games for the Eagles in 2013, starting six, and looked competent. However, he suffered a mysterious knee injury toward the end of his rookie season, and it seemed to linger into training camp last year. Wolff wound up sitting out a few practices, missing valuable reps in the process, and ultimately a competition never materialized. He played only sparingly in ’14 before finally winding up on injured reserve, undergoing “mini-microfracture surgery” in November.

As of June, Wolff still wasn’t practicing. Now there are doubts as to whether the 2013 fifth-round pick will even make the team.

Even if Wolff pops up on the practice field come August, you have to wonder what type of physical condition he’s going to be in, let alone how much his development has progressed. Does he still possess 4.4 speed? Is he going have confidence in his own ability and instincts?

I don’t necessarily agree with head coach Chip Kelly calling out the third-year safety in the media—if Wolff isn’t healthy, then he isn’t healthy. That being said, it’s difficult to view the 25-year-old as a viable prospect at this point.

For that matter, Philadelphia’s prospects at safety are bleak in general. The 2014 draft class hasn’t produced viable options, either, and the Eagles didn’t bother calling a safety’s name this year. This could become a serious issue, both this season and down the road.



Left Safety / Malcolm Jenkins

Plenty of fans were upset when the Eagles passed on Jairus Byrd in free agency last year, opting instead for the cheaper and less heralded Jenkins. Byrd received $26 million guaranteed from the New Orleans Saints, struggled and promptly wound up on injured reserve. Jenkins signed for $8.5 million and turned out to be a perfect fit for Philadelphia, going on to enjoy a career year of sorts.

Jenkins posted personal bests with 15 pass breakups and three interceptions. The statistics would’ve been even more impressive had he not left a few surefire picks on the turf. Regardless, it was one of the seventh-year veteran’s strongest campaigns to date. He seemed to be around the ball constantly.

Jenkins is only 27. He may not ever get invited to the Pro Bowl, but he can handle every role the Eagles demand of their safeties. He’s also a leader, making adjustments on the field and mentoring younger players off of it. There’s nothing too flashy about Jenkins, other than the way he dresses, but he is solid.



Right Safety / Walter Thurmond

The surprise development of spring workouts was Thurmond—a cornerback by trade—taking up residence at safety in Philadelphia’s secondary, and running with the first-team defense no less. That should illustrate just how desperate the situation has become.

Say what you want about Allen, but he is an actual safety. Thurmond, who will be 28, has never played the position at either the pro or collegiate level.

The good news is transitioning from corner to safety isn’t necessarily a massive undertaking for Thurmond. The Eagles deploy their safeties in man-to-man coverage with some frequency, so the long-time nickel cornerback shouldn’t feel too out of place when he’s lining up against slot receivers. Football Outsiders showed a 59-percent stop rate in coverage for Thurmond with the Seattle Seahawks in 2013, good for third among all NFL defensive backs. A stop is not only an interception or incomplete pass, but also short completions that don’t meet FO’s baseline for a successful play for the offense.

Of course, other aspects of the position will be foreign. Assuming he’s taking over Allen’s role in the defense, Thurmond could see a lot of single-high zone coverage, and there’s no telling how that will work out. It’s easy to point out Allen’s flaws on tape, but we simply don’t know how Thurmond will react when he’s responsible for everything over the top. Jenkins could see more single-high as a result, but Thurmond inevitably will wind up the last line of defense at times.

The other issue with Thurmond is he’s unreliable. Thurmond has suited up for just 27 of the last possible 71 regular-season and playoff games due to injuries and one suspension. He made it just two games with the New York Giants in 2014 before winding up on IR. Even if there isn’t any drop-off in performance from Allen, how long until Thurmond is out of the lineup? That question may hang over the secondary all season long.



The key here is whether Thurmond or anybody else can step up and perform more consistently than Allen. First of all, there’s little to no data or physical evidence indicating that will be the case. Second, with Wolff’s status in jeopardy, depth becomes a major concern as well. As much as you may want to believe coaching could address some of the larger issues in the secondary, it’s almost impossible to look at this group of safeties and declare the situation better.



Previously:  Cornerback

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