Walter Thurmond watches Malcolm Jenkins in practice. He has emulated former teammates Earl Thomas and Antrel Rolle. It's part of his acclimation to a new position, but it's no coincidence those are safeties that Thurmond says he admires.
Jenkins and Rolle entered the NFL as cornerbacks before switching to safety. Thomas made the change in college. They all experienced what Thurmond went through this spring, when the Eagles decided to move Thurmond, a career cornerback, to safety.
"I have my white belt on," Thurmond said during the spring.
The Eagles, who start training camp on Sunday, need Thurmond to reach black belt quickly. A revolving door at safety will continue this season, when Thurmond could become the 14th different safety to start for the Eagles since Brian Dawkins was not retained in 2009. He might be the most unconventional choice, too, considering he's never played the position.
"I'm constantly talking to coaches about what I can get better at, whether it's my vision or my depth in the middle of the field," Thurmond said. "Just understanding the defense and being more vocal. It's different coming from the nickel and the corner position, where you don't have to be as vocal. The safety has to be very vocal. You have to set the defense to a degree from the safety position."
The Eagles present a new start for Thurmond, who is on his third NFL team in three years. Early in Thurmond's Seahawks career, he thought he'd become a standout cornerback and big-ticket free agent. Then a 2011 leg injury cost him a starting job and a four-game suspension in 2013 also went on his resume. The market wasn't as robust in 2014.
"If I didn't break my leg in 2011, I'd have a different career path at corner," Thurmond said.
The Eagles expressed interest in bringing Thurmond to Philadelphia last season. Thurmond could reunite with Chip Kelly, who coached him for one season at Oregon.
But he looked at the depth chart. The Eagles returned their top cornerbacks from 2013, and they had just signed Nolan Carroll in free agency. Coming from a crowded mix with the Seahawks, Thurmond wanted a chance to start. He thought the New York Giants offered a better opportunity, so Thurmond opted for a one-year deal up the Jersey Turnpike.
His season was lost in Week 2 with a torn pectoral. Once again, Thurmond became a free agent. This time, the Eagles' cornerback depth chart was different. He signed a one-year deal expecting a chance to start opposite former Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell. Then the Eagles drafted three cornerbacks and no safeties, and the team identified him as a cornerback who can make the switch.
"Biggest difference between playing corner and safety is the amount of information that you've got to process – don't even talk about when the ball's snapped – but before the ball's snapped," defensive backs coach Cory Undlin said. "You've got to put the guy back there and see if he can do it. Thankfully for Walter, and his mind-set right now, he's like, 'Hey, I'll give it a shot' and it has been awesome to watch him do it."
The Eagles' defense does not require a big-hitting, in-the-box safety, so Thurmond is confident that he fits the scheme the Eagles run. The coverage skills can translate from cornerback. The adjustments will be the calls, the positioning, and the open-field tackling.
Thurmond considers those experienced safeties that switched from cornerback and takes solace that they were once in "the same boat." And he's learned from the safeties he has played with during his career.
When Thomas was a rookie in Seattle, Thurmond remembered he too often tried to make the plays and needed to work on not jumping forward so quickly. That stuck with Thurmond, who watched Thomas develop into one of the best safeties in the NFL.
Beginning Sunday, Thurmond will spend the first of his six NFL training camps playing safety. He's the front-runner to start the season at the position, too. The adjustment could take longer than training camp, but if it works, it could give the Eagles the stability at safety they've been unable to find.
"You never have it down," Thurmond said. "When you start getting too comfortable and think you do have it, that's when you start giving up plays."