The Inquirer is previewing the Eagles' offseason. Free agency will begin on March 9, and the draft will be April 27-29.
Monday, Feb. 13: Quarterbacks
Tuesday, Feb. 14: Running backs
Wednesday, Feb. 15: Wide receivers
Thursday, Feb. 16: Offensive line
Friday, Feb. 17: Tight ends
Monday, Feb. 20: Defensive ends
Tuesday, Feb. 21: Defensive tackles
Wednesday, Feb. 22: Linebackers
Thursday, Feb. 23: Cornerbacks
Friday, Feb. 24: Safeties
Terrence Brooks, Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Maragos, Rodney McLeod.
The Eagles are set at safety for next season, at least as far as their starters go. Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod had solid, if not great, 2016 seasons, and both of their 2017 base salaries - $6 million for Jenkins and $4 million for McLeod – are guaranteed. Their combined cap number of $13.1 million for next season isn't exactly a bargain, but it's comparable to other safety tandems of equal caliber. Plenty could change, but as of this writing, Jenkins and McLeod are slated to have the sixth-highest cap number among safety combos in the NFL, behind the Seahawks' Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor ($18.5 million), the Saints' Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro ($16.8 million), the Patriots' Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung ($15.5 million), the Ravens' Eric Weddle and Lardarius Webb ($13.3 million) and the Broncos' Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward ($13.2 million).
Jenkins had another strong season, but even he admitted that he wasn't as consistent as he was in 2015. One of his strengths is his versatility. He can play down in the box, in centerfield and in the slot, but it seemed as if the Eagles had stretched him thin as the season wore on down the stretch. Jenkins preferred to play in the slot in the nickel defense, but it resulted in more play for third safety Jaylen Watkins. This was understandable considering the Eagles' limited options at cornerback. But moving forward it might behoove Jim Schwartz to have a defensive back dedicated solely to the slot. He said that matchups often played a role in who played inside, and that made perfect sense, but those matchups didn't always favor the Eagles. Jenkins turns 30 in December, but he hasn't missed a snap in three seasons in Philadelphia.
McLeod, who was signed to a five-year, $35 million contract last offseason, started off strong, but seemed to regress late in the season. He had three interceptions in the first six games and made up for some of the outside cornerbacks' flaws by covering so much ground in the secondary. But there were two plays in December that were indicative of his slide, and to some, suggested that he had packed it in. McLeod was late to make an attempt on a goal line carry in Cincinnati and took a backward angle on a touchdown run by the Ravens a few weeks later. Schwartz said McLeod's mistakes on those two plays had more to do with technique than hustle and I would tend to agree. Still, he needs to be more consistent at free safety. To my surprise, when I polled the Eagles on which teammate they would select for the Pro Bowl, McLeod received the third most number of votes behind Jason Peters and Brandon Graham.
Chris Maragos signed a three-year, $6 million extension through 2019 in November. He's one of the best cover special teams players in the NFL and keeping him around for the foreseeable future made sense. Maragos is not, however, a viable option as the third safety. He's much better running forward than backward. Terrence Brooks, who was claimed off waivers before last season, played in 11 games, almost exclusively on special teams. The 24-year-old safety recorded five special teams tackles. His lone defensive snaps came in the December Giants game when the Eagles ran a quasi box-and-one scheme to stop Odell Beckham Jr. on New York's last drive. The game ended when Brooks intercepted an Eli Manning last-gasp heave.
An exclusive-rights free agent, Watkins is likely to be tendered a contract by the Eagles this offseason. Selected in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, Watkins bounced back and forth between cornerback and safety in his first two seasons, and even had a stint on the Bills' practice squad. But he was exclusively at safety last season and the continuity appeared to pay off. He played 388 snaps on defense. He was more consistent, particularly as a tackler, after spending after-practice hours with Brian Dawkins. But Watkins had his slip-ups, the most significant perhaps when he was late to close on a Raven's touchdown pass before the half. The Eagles could look to upgrade the No. 3 safety spot in either free agency or the draft.
FREE AGENT OPTIONS
The Eagles aren't in the market for a starting safety, so the Chiefs' Eric Berry - who may not even reach free agency - won't be a target. The same could be said of second- or third-tier safeties like the Cardinals' Tony Jefferson, the Cowboys' Barry Church and the Jaguars' Johnathan Cyprien. Those guys are probably going to get overpaid. Even safeties with some obvious flaws in their games are going to be compensated as if they can come to a team and start. D.J. Swearinger of the Cardinals, Quintin Demps of the Texans, J.J. Wilcox of the Cowboys and Duron Harmon of the Patriots come to mind. The Eagles are likely only looking to add some depth at safety, so they don't want to get into some bidding war for a borderline starter. But as the market settles and weeks pass, they could dig into the bargain basement bin. The Browns' Jordan Poyer, who was originally drafted by the Eagles as a cornerback in 2013, could be worth a minor gamble.
The draft presents the same scenarios. The Eagles are unlikely to expend an early round pick on a safety, especially top-ten prospects like Malik Hooker (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) of Ohio State and Jamal Adams (6-0, 211) of LSU. There are some projected free safeties that could tempt on Day 2, though. Budda Baker (5-10, 192) of Washington is tough and aggressive despite the lack of size. Marcus Williams (6-0, 195) of Utah could be a classic centerfield safety in the pros. Marcus Maye (5-11, 216) of Florida is likely to go before Day 3. Jabrill Peppers (6-0, 205) of Michigan is an intriguing prospect. He played multiple positions on defense and offense in college, but safety may be his best spot in the NFL. Obi Melifonwu (6-4, 219) of Connecticut and Eddie Jackson (6-0, 194) of Alabama appear to have skills more suited to play safety near the box.