Much of the offseason talk in Philadelphia has been regarding the likes of Peyton Manning, Plaxico Burress or the possibility of trading up to draft Robert Griffin III – but no story has been more overhyped than that of DeSean
Jackson. While it is Jackson’s way to be divaesque, self-centered and
generally a royal pain in the ass (as most of Drew Rosenhaus’ clientele) there
is a more compelling interest for Eagles fans – the defense.
Fans generally like to play fantasy football by getting excited about Reggie Bush, Plaxico Burress, Albert Haynesworth or even Peyton Manning but usually these same fans become disillusioned with the performance garnered from Ronnie Brown, Vince Young or Steve Smith. Cullen Jenkins was the crown jewel of
the Eagles 2011 free agent frenzy, followed closely by Nnamdi Asomugha (though Nnamdi was misused in 2011 and will once again prove himself a shutdown corner in 2012 when paired with Dominique Rodgers-Cromarte).
The 2012 NFL Draft is approaching quickly and many experts project Boston College LB Luke Kuechly as the blue chipper of this defensive class. Kuechly impressed most at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, including the Eagles brass.
Kuechly quietly got in his stance on the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium and took off, running a 4.58 40-yard dash and matching the best time he had posted
NFL Network’s Mike Mayock stated previously that Kuechly needed to run a 4.7 or better. Anything slower than that would lead to doubts about his speed and athleticism. When Kuechly set up for his second run and clocked in at 4.78, the questions from the first time around resurfaced – at first…
“On the first one, I ran real well. Everything went smoothly,” Kuechly said. “On the second one, I didn’t have a good start and slipped coming out. The footing’s not that good at that point since a bunch of guys have already been through it.” Because of the
discrepancy, scouts asked Kuechly to run a third time. He ran a 4.59. Questions?
Three days earlier, Kuechly woke up at 4 a.m. to catch a flight and take part in the NFL’s annual job fair for college prospects. While the workout portion of the combine is televised, the interviews and medical checks are a major part of the process. Kuechly, who measured in at 6-3, 242, estimates he talked to 18 to 20 teams, including the Eagles. The interviews, which took place Saturday and Sunday nights, lasted 15 minutes each. Kuechly said Andy Reid, Juan Castillo and linebackers coach Mike Caldwell were in the room when he met with the Eagles - an interview that was especially straightforward.
Kuechly said coaches would show him a play – either on tape or on the board – and ask him what the responsibilities were of specific defenders. Kuechly, who prided himself on watching a lot of film at BC, felt comfortable providing answers. Early prognosticators forecast Luke Kuechly to either Seattle (12) or the Eagles (15).
Naturally this could all change should the St. Louis Rams (who also value Kuechly) open up the bidding for the second overall pick and the rights to draft Robert Griffin III. Trades involving Miami, Seattle, Kansas City, Washington or Cleveland would derail the chronology of the draft – and add more teams into the linebacker mix mid-first round. That doesn’t account for Peyton Manning’s situation which would ensure one of those teams rescind their interest in the RG3 Project in favor of the Peyton Manning Experience.
If indeed yet another rookie linebacker (Chaney, Foku, Matthews, Rolle) seems like more of the same, then it would be advisable to watch Kuechly on tape. Combine drills may be valuable on some level but his play on the field (even against collegiate competition) is what bears scrutiny. Meanwhile, the rest of the draft will likely be used to accumulate quality players to fill out the depth chart – specifically at skill positions, special teams and of course… safety.
The Eagles are deep at cornerback (pending Asante Samuel’s fate), but need to upgrade at linebacker and get younger on the defensive line. Both of those positions would be bolstered by a significant upgrade at safety, where the historical precedent has been to keep Brian Dawkins one more year or simply hope that no one notices the gaping void since his departure.
Are the Eagles in the market for safety help or will they stick with their early round picks the past couple of years?
As with linebacker, the Eagles don’t place a premium on the safety position. Their
three best safeties since Andy Reid became head coach in 1999 – Brian Dawkins, Michael Lewis and Quintin Mikell – have all left via free agency. They have signed only one unrestricted free agent to a contract longer than one year – Blaine Bishop for three years in 2002 – but that proved a one-year rental until Lewis was ready.
Dawkins, for the most part, afforded the Eagles the luxury of not having to chase free agent safeties or select one high in the draft. When Dawkins walked in 2009 (not entirely of his own volition) the Eagles failed on a series of mid-round replacement picks – Quintin Demps, C.J. Gaddis, Sean Considine and J.R. Reed. Finally in 2010 and 2011 they expended second round picks on Nate Allen and Jaiquawn Jarrett, respectively.
Consider if you will one Nate Allen. The Eagles must gauge their confidence in the
third-year safety for 2012 prior to undertaking an expedition in free agency. Do they believe in the Allen that aggressively made tackles all over the field at Buffalo and finished last season on the upswing? If so, the Eagles can proceed with Allen as their defensive backfield anchor while Kurt Coleman and (2011 Temple product) Jaiquawn Jarrett battle over the other safety spot.
Or do they believe that it wasn’t Allen’s return from a knee injury that led to a preseason benching and that Allen is always susceptible to shaky performances like the one he delivered against the Patriots in late November?
Neither has solidified himself as a slam-dunk starter, although both have legitimate excuses. Allen tore the patellar tendon in his knee in December of his rookie season, and Jarrett was obviously stunted by the lockout last year. Excuses like good intentions don’t win football games – but they often lose them.
In Allen’s case, it’s difficult to determine how much the bad knee hampered his play. He did not openly gripe about his injury but maintained that it was never 100 percent. Despite that, by the fifth game of the season he looked completely healthy, recording a team-high 13 tackles against the Bills. A month later, Allen had regressed and by the New England game was embarrassingly poor in pass coverage. Allen was actually much better in run support than he was against the pass during the season, which is contrary to how he was evaluated coming out of college.
If Allen is indeed better suited to play closer to the line (vs. run), the Eagles lack a true centerfield safety. Neither Coleman nor Jarrett are cover men. Allen and Jarrett, because of their draft positions, will get first dibs at starting. Coleman will return because, despite his physical limitations, he has a better understanding of the position. The question would be whether or not to make this a free agent priority or to simply take whatever scraps may be left over after the multi-million dollar fur has stopped flying. Scavenger free agency if you will.
It also might not be a bad idea to sign not only an insurance policy but a
seasoned mentor for the entire group of young bucks. If so, the Eagles will
need to add more of an impact free agent. Anyone who is brought in to compete, will unquestionably be through free agency or via trade rather than through a high draft pick. This is not a safety-rich draft and the Eagles are already teeming with young potential at the safety position.
While the Eagles will likely target a second- or third-tier safety with a one-year contract, there are several attractive free agents if they decide Allen and company won’t suffice. The pool diluted some when the Raiders and 49ers placed their franchise tags on Tyvon Branch and Dashon Goldson, respectively. There are some appealing safeties expected to be on the market:
Titans. Griffin, a two-time Pro Bowl safety, often gets
labeled enigmatic. In other words, he’s inconsistent. Tennessee could franchise
Griffin since they decided not to tag cornerback Cortland Finnegan. But the
27-year-old looks bound for free agency – perhaps a solid B. Griffin sometimes
gives up big plays and doesn’t always finish strong. Enigmatic means sometimes he can be brilliant.
LaRon Landry, Redskins. Washington franchised TE Fred
Davis, so Landry should be available when free agency opens on March 13.
He’s only played in 17 games over the last two seasons and still has an
Achilles tendon problem. But he’s as feared as any safety in the league. He’s
been working out like he’s He-Man recently which is not likely to help the foot
problem. Beware damaged goods!
Falcons. A three-year starter, he isn’t likely to command
Atlanta’s attention with unsigned CB Brent Grimes and LB Curtis Lofton (Grimes
was franchised Friday). DeCoud will probably walk. Classified as “adequate,”
by scouts, DeCoud has good instincts
against the run.
Bengals. Nelson had his finest season, but he faded some down
the stretch in 2011 and could be a risk to sign – or he could have suffered
post-lockout fatigue syndrome (PLFS). Nelson blitzed a decent amount and came
up with a number of “plus-plays” (4 INT, 2 sacks and 2 forced
fumbles) last season. Nelson can be the engine of a defense and may very well
be the right fit for Philadelphia.
SAFETY FREE AGENT OPTIONS
Griffin Titans 6-0 203, 27 Former first rounder is inconsistent. Enigmatic is another word.
LaRon Landry Redskins 6-0 220, 27 Still a big hitter, but injury prone. Beware damaged goods.
Thomas DeCoud Falcons 6-2 192, 26 Above average run stopper – with questionable cover skills.
Reggie Nelson Bengals 5-11 206, 28 Wants to stay in Cincinnati – but fits in Philadelphia.
Brodney Pool Jets 6-2 214, 27 Already has 7 seasons under belt entering his prime
Dwight Lowery Jaguars 5-11 198, 26 Has only 29 career starts in 4 seasons.
Jim Leonhard Jets 5-8 188, 29 Tore his patellar tendon in December. Not known for run-stopping
Mike Adams Browns 5-11 200, 30 Getting extremely long in what’s left of the tooth for football years. The NFL does offer an AARP discount over 30.
About the Author
Written by Christopher Rowe
Contributing writer Comcast Sports, NY Times contributing stringer 1996-2000, Contributing writer Yahoo Sports (2001 World Series). Contributing writer Newsday Long Island (1992-1994, Jets Training Camp) and Newak Star Ledger. Freelance Copywriter, Editor/Founder Atlantic Times Weekly (1993-2003) fantasy football magazine, produced screenwriter and general humorist. Hofstra University grad, Marist College honorary alum, Salesian; Purveyor of the Value and Valor of Philadelphia Eagles 1960 NFL Championship; Adrent believer that Eagles could have won Super Bowl XV...and Super Bowl XXXIX...plus modern decade of Eagles 5 NFC Championships... Believer in the Broad Street Bullies and the 1983 Sixers... Witness to Philadelphia Phillies World Series championships 1980 & 2008, Suffered Phillies first pro sports team to reach 10,000 losses,witnessed "1980 Cardiac Kids," 1983 "Wheeze Kids," 1993 "Macho Row" and many, many, many not-so-memorable seasons in-between... until the Philadelphia Baseball Renaissance of 21st Century, Five NL East division titles 2007-2011, 3 NLCS appearances 2008-2010, 2 consecutive World Series berths 2008 & 2009. 2008 World Champions of baseball [miss ya Harry and Richie]; "collector" of MLB ballparks (42 stadiums including 15 which are gone); Fantasy Football & Baseball player since 1992. Always a sports fan... Tenui Nec Dimittam Contact me firstname.lastname@example.org