Nick Sirianni preaches competition to his players. So when Marcus Epps and Avonte Maddox sit next to each other in the Eagles’ defensive backs room and have some down time, they compete in spirited games of Kahoot! — a popular quiz game.
“He always beat me by like three points,” Maddox said.
If Epps is as good a safety as he is at Kahoot! then the Eagles’ secondary might just be OK this year.
That has to be the hope, at least. Because barring another James Bradberry-like acquisition — which remains possible — Epps is slated to be a starting safety for the Eagles in 2022.
“The coaches, they’ve expressed confidence in me,” Epps said this week. “Obviously, I have a lot of confidence in myself. But just like any other year, man, I still have to come in and prove it. I still have a lot to prove.”
That’s probably a pretty unpopular statement among Eagles fans: That Epps is going to be a starter. After all, the Eagles went after a few top safeties this offseason and came up empty. So now it looks like they’re falling back on Epps — maybe in some ways they are — who could be the weak spot of their secondary. But just after the draft GM Howie Roseman expressed his confidence in Epps. His teammates share that confidence.
And there are reasons to believe that Epps will be just fine in a starting role in 2022.
Just look at his performance in 2021. Epps began last season as a depth player in the secondary but because of some injuries to Rodney McLeod and Anthony Harris, Epps’ role grew. Then he played well enough to basically force Jonathan Gannon to use a rotation on the back end. Epps was playing too well to keep him off the field.
In 2021, Epps played 48% of the Eagles’ defensive snaps and, according to ProFootballFocus, graded out higher than both McLeod and Harris in front of him. Epps was PFF’s 18th-best safety in 2021. McLeod and Harris ranked 43rd and 53rd, respectively.
Epps last season played in 16 games with 3 starts and had an interception, 5 pass breakups and 62 combined tackles.
That success last year did a lot to boost Epps’ confidence.
“I thought I played pretty solid last year,” he said. “I thought I set a good foundation for myself to build on this year.”
This offseason, the Eagles re-signed Harris, but let McLeod walk. And without any other significant additions to the position — even though they showed interest in players like Marcus Williams and Tyrann Mathieu — it’s pretty clear that Epps is in line for a starting gig.
Could the Eagles still find another safety? Sure. But Epps isn’t worried about that. And his teammates don’t seem to be worried about him.
“He’s definitely ready to be a starter,” Maddox said. “He comes out, he puts in the work, he puts in the time, he studies in the film room, he has great fundamentals and details. He makes plays. Last year, he made plays. He’s not afraid to come up and tackle and he’s definitely capable of running 40 yards to the left, 40 yards to the right to stop that fade ball or help that corner out on the fade ball. I’m excited to see what he do this year.”
Epps, 26, arrived in Philadelphia during the 2019 season as a mid-year waiver claim from the Vikings, who drafted him in the sixth round that year. The Eagles brought in Epps to basically replace veteran Andrew Sendejo, who was cut a few days before. Epps saw some time on defense in 2019 but then saw his role expand in 2020 and again in 2021.
He’s been here for two and a half seasons and Epps has continued to get better. As a former walk-on at Wyoming, Epps is no stranger to working his way up the depth chart.
“Our coaches have been saying something: ‘You have to prove and reprove yourself,’” Epps said. “That’s kind of the way it’s been for me even in college. I was a walk-on. I had to prove and reprove myself. That’s how my mindset has always been. My mindset hasn’t really shifted from that. Always have that chip on my shoulder and feel like I have to prove myself. And even if I prove myself, I have to reprove myself. I’m just going to continue to try to show I belong.”
Most folks agree that Epps played fairly well in a limited role last season. But the big question is whether or not that success will translate if he’s a starter.
Was Epps good last year because he has a very small role and excelled at it? Or was he good because … he’s just good?
“I mean, some people want to look for sample size,” Harris said last week. “I think you just look at the player, the ability and what he’s done with the opportunity he’s given. And nobody can predict the future but he’s doing all the right things to give himself the chance to be just as successful as anybody else.
“I think you take a look at that and you continue to give players more opportunities to continue to do and succeed with what they’re given as well.”
The Eagles this offseason have improved just about every position on their defense. They added on the defensive line with Jordan Davis. They brought in an edge rusher in Hassan Reddick. They found legitimate linebackers in Kyzir White and Nakobe Dean. And this week they landed their CB2 in Bradberry.
On the outside, it looks like the Eagles still need to improve at the safety position and maybe they still will.
But it’s also possible the Eagles think they already have their answer on the roster.
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