It didn’t take long for Darius Slay to notice Reed Blankenship.
When the Eagles signed Blankenship after the 2022 draft, he was mostly an afterthought coming out of Middle Tennessee State. Heck, his UDFA deal included just $55,000 in guaranteed money, the second-lowest amount of the Eagles’ UDFA class that year, ahead of just one player who didn’t get any guaranteed.
He wasn’t supposed to make the team. He wasn’t supposed to play. He certainly wasn’t supposed to blossom into a starter.
But a little over a year later, Blankenship is ready to begin his second NFL season as a full-time starter at safety. And his teammates aren’t surprised.
Not even a little bit.
“I already knew his confidence wasn’t going to be an issue during (his rookie) training camp,” Slay said. “Him out there, getting a lot of reps, definitely the Miami game, he was out there, flying around last year in the preseason. That let you know he was ready to play in this league at a high level. We trusted him as a group. He knew his job, he knew his assignments. He got comfortable quick and executed at a high level.”
Blankenship didn’t get drafted but his experience was on display pretty early last summer, especially when the pads came on. At Middle Tennessee State, Blankenship was a five-year starter and had an incredible 419 tackles in his college career. That experience helped during his rookie training camp.
More than that, Blankenship was smart on the field.
It’s one thing for a young defensive back to flash athleticism. It’s another for a young DB to be assignment sound. That’s what really stood out to Slay.
“The first thing about being a young dude is understanding your assignment,” Slay explained. “That’s one thing he understood at a young age. We were drilling that into him, man. Know your job, do your job. It don’t matter how fast you’re going if you don’t know where you’re going. It’s a bad play.
“A lot of guys want to believe in hustling and all that. It’s cool to hustle but you have to hustle doing the right job and he did a great job doing the right job.”
Blankenship began his rookie season inactive for six of the first seven games. He didn’t get his first special teams action until Week 5 and didn’t play on defense until Week 11.
When did James Bradberry know the Eagles had something in Blankenship?
“When he picked off Aaron Rodgers,” Bradberry answered.
Yeah, that makes sense.
That interception came in Blankenship’s first extended playing time on defense in the NFL, a 40-33 win over the Packers. He had just two defensive snaps under his belt before that game. That play felt like it should have been a big moment for Blankenship but it wasn’t some crazy turning point. He hasn’t really even reflected on it since then. It was just the next step for him.
“It’s just one of those things, you have to make that play,” Blankenship said recently. “Safeties in the league make those types of plays.”
But by the end of his rookie season, Blankenship had played in 10 regular season games with 4 starts. And he showed enough in those games that when C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Marcus Epps left in free agency, the Eagles didn’t hesitate to make him a starting safety this spring and haven’t moved him since.
“Obviously, I have a bigger role this year,” Blankenship said. “I just want to keep going day by day. I know there’s still stuff to improve on before our first game and I don’t want to get too high, I don’t want to get too low. Just keep trucking along.”
While the other safety position saw a constant rotation all summer that included Justin Evans, Terrell Edmunds, Sydney Brown and even K’Von Wallace, the one guy who didn’t leave the field was Blankenship. He has gone from an undrafted rookie to being a stabilizing force on the back end in a little over a year.
It’s clear that even Blankenship’s most veteran teammates have faith in him.
“It’s been pretty consistent and I think that’s hard as a young player, especially going into your second year,” Bradberry said. “Being consistent each and every day. And not even being in a new scheme but just having new individuals back in the secondary, having new coaches, it’s hard being consistent going into a second year when you got new people around you overall.”
Earlier this summer, Slay introduced a term to Eagles fans: Milk check.
It’s what Bills quarterback Josh Allen has used to describe testing white players in the secondary. But even if Blankenship wasn’t a white defensive back, he’d probably still be tested this season by opposing quarterbacks who look outside and see a couple of Pro Bowlers and look at the safety spot and see a second-year UDFA.
Blankenship expects QBs to target him in 2023.
“I’m guessing that teams are going to tend to point me out with a lot of stuff,” he said. “I just have to be confident at what I do and play football.”
The more teams throw Blankenship’s way, the more opportunities there will be for him to make plays. This summer, he led the Eagles with five interceptions in training camp, including three off Deshaun Watson when the Browns were in town for joint practices.
Perhaps the best sign we saw from Blankenship all summer was after one of his interceptions. After his third pick off Watson, Blankenship snagged the ball out of the air in the end zone and then celebrated with a little basketball move, passing the ball through his legs a couple times before finishing with a finger roll.
Blankenship looked as confident in himself as his teammates have been for a while now.
“We believe in him,” Slay said. “They can milk check it all they want but like you’ve been seeing, he’s been making plays. I pray that he continues to do that and help this team win.”