Rodney McLeod came to the Eagles, at least in part, to “play alongside Malcolm [Jenkins] and learn a lot from him,” McLeod told a conference call with reporters on Friday.
Their four-season run as the most reliable Eagles safety tandem of the past few decades ended when the Eagles declined to rework Jenkins’ contract to his liking, and allowed the leader of the defense to become a free agent last month. Jenkins quickly returned to his original team, the New Orleans Saints, leaving McLeod as the most experienced member of the team’s secondary.
McLeod, who turns 30 in June, came here from the Rams as a free agent in 2016. He was on the verge of heading back into the free agent market last month along with Jenkins, but the Eagles brought him back for two years and $8.65 million.
McLeod said Jenkins’ departure was part of the business of the NFL, and that now, “we have to move forward.”
“Myself, being a leader on this team for some time, will, of course, be asked to step up, as well as other guys, from a defensive standpoint and on the team [overall]. I think we’re prepared for that,” McLeod said.
He said that instead of going back into free agency, he wanted to “continue to play my career here in a city that’s embraced me, that I love dearly, and that I’ve had a chance to make an impact in [off the field]. I want to continue to do that. ... I feel like there is more work to be done here. I’m glad to potentially have a chance to finish my career off here and potentially make more impactful plays for this city.”
McLeod said Jenkins’ best attribute as a leader was “his ability to get the most out of guys, whether it was on the defensive side, or from the entire team standpoint.” McLeod said he tends to lead more by example, but when he feels it’s needed, he will speak up.
“I don’t think much will change for me, I’ll just continue to be myself,” he said.
For now, anyway, the idea is for cornerback Jalen Mills to move to safety and start next to McLeod.
“I think it’ll be very easy for him,” McLeod said, noting that Mills, who turns 26 on Monday, played some safety at LSU. “He’s a physical player. He’s a smart player -- what you need at that safety position -- and he plays with a lot of passion and energy.”
McLeod said Mills has shown versatility in his four Eagles seasons, and “is a perfect guy that can now fit into the safety role. I’m excited to play next to him. ... I think we’re going to make a lot of plays for our secondary this year.”
The Eagles also let corner Ronald Darby move on, down I-95 to Washington. They’ve added nickel corner Nickell Robey-Coleman, and they apparently plan to have Avonte Maddox and Sidney Jones spar for the starting corner spot opposite newcomer Darius Slay, pending what happens in the draft. They seem to be trying to trade corner Rasul Douglas. Cre’Von LeBlanc might battle Robey-Coleman for the nickel role.
“It’s really no telling” what the secondary could look like this season, McLeod said. “I think everybody has a very unique skillset, and that’s what’s special about this group. Everybody’s very versatile, and very competitive ... you want to create that competitive atmosphere, particularly in the secondary room.
“It’s hard for me to say what the secondary’s gonna look like, who’s going to be at what position, because there’s so much talent to go around.”
McLeod noted that developing chemistry might be difficult, given the uncertainty over when NFL facilities will be open again in the time of the coronavirus. He speculated that June and July, usually down time for the players before training camp starts at the end of July, might be a time when “guys are now finding ways to get together and work out.”
Part of the new-look secondary is a new defensive backfield coach, Marquand Manuel. McLeod said Manuel coached him in the 2012 East-West Shrine Game, and since coming to the Eagles, has been reaching out to his new charges over the phone. McLeod said he recalls Manuel as being “very passionate.”
McLeod and his wife, Erika, recently donated $25,000 to Philabundance, to help with food supplies for at-risk families amid the crisis. He spoke Thursday about helping the Philadelphia School District’s efforts to feed students who aren’t in class now.
“It’s a time [for] us all to get together and try to help out the communities that need it the most,” he said.