PITTSBURGH - During Billy Davis' three seasons as the Eagles' defensive coordinator, he seldom, if ever, mentioned the safety position and stopping the run in the same sentence.

In his two-gap, 3-4 scheme, safeties were quasi-cornerbacks with limited run responsibilities. Tackling was way down their list of priorities. The way getting coffee is for a Fortune 500 CEO.

Yes, Malcolm Jenkins had a team-high 104 tackles last season. But about half of those were on guys Byron Maxwell and Mychal Kendricks missed.

That's changed with a new defensive sheriff in town. While coverage still is job one for the safeties in Jim Schwartz's Wide 9, 4-3 scheme, they have gap responsibilities against the run, which they didn't have in Davis' defense.

"There's a little bit more (run) responsibility," Jenkins said. "But it's not overly complicated. Jim has the same mentality as Billy, as far as not wanting an in-the-box safety who's a big hitter. He wants guys who can cover, who can move, and just fill the hole.

"He tells us all the time, in most of our coverages, if we get a tackle for a loss, that means we probably were too aggressive."

Yet, the fact that the Eagles replaced one of last year's two starting safeties, converted corner Walter Thurmond, who retired to pursue a career in film production, with Rodney McLeod, who is a much more physical safety than Thurmond, speaks volumes.

So, too, does something Schwartz said the other day when he was asked about corner-turned-safety Jaylen Watkins.

"I think the biggest thing for him is going to be tackling from the safety position," Schwartz said of the 5-11 1/2, 195-pound Watkins. "That's going to be his biggest challenge, just because he's played mostly corner, and it's a different angle, and things like that.

"That's pretty much what he's been working on. But what you've seen (from him) is his ability to make a play on the ball, and he needs to continue to do that also."

From the outside looking in, Watkins' chances of making the Eagles' season-opening roster when training camp began late last month seemed to rank somewhere between slim and none. They are a bit better right now. He's hardly a slam-dunk to be one of the final 53 preseason survivors. But if keeps playing well, he could be one of the four or five safeties the Eagles keep.

Jenkins and McLeod's names are etched in stone as the starters. Chris Maragos has a spot assured because of his special-teams prowess.

Ed Reynolds, who is an inch taller and 12 pounds heavier than Watkins, played 310 snaps last season. Blake Countess is a sixth-round rookie, who, like Maragos, is a special-teams demon.

And I didn't even mention 2015 second-round pick Eric Rowe, who is playing corner, but, in my opinion, probably will get kicked inside to safety at some point this season or next.

But that's why they have practices and that's why they have preseason games. OK, OK, they primarily have preseason games so Jeff Lurie and the rest of the league's owners can get their hands on more of your money.

But they also provide an opportunity for players such as Watkins to flash and convince the coaches they deserve a roster spot.

Watkins played very well in last week's first preseason game against Tampa Bay and will get a chance to make another positive impression on Schwartz on Thursday night against the Steelers.

He played 42 snaps against the Bucs. Made four tackles and broke up a pass attempt to the tight end.

The Eagles selected Watkins in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. He started 28 games at Florida, 20 of them at corner, two at slot corner and six at safety.

Watkins took practice reps at every defensive back position his rookie year - safety, corner, slot, even dime linebacker.

Last year, he was released before the season, spent most of the year on the Buffalo Bills' practice squad, then was re-signed by the Eagles in late November when injuries left them short at cornerback. He played 83 snaps, mostly in nickel and dime packages.

Schwartz moved Watkins to safety in the spring.

"They just kind of asked me to do it," he said. "I didn't know how long it was going to be for. But it kind of grew a little bit over the course of OTAs. I guess they liked me back there."

Watkins said the transition to safety hasn't been that difficult.

"Just being able to cover the tight ends is a lot easier for me," he said. "I'm used to quicker guys in the slot. And then being out on an island (at cornerback) and gaining that confidence level (outside), and then moving inside against bigger, slower guys."

The "bigger" part can be a challenge for smaller safeties like Watkins, but he doesn't seem to regard it as an unsolvable problem. We'll see how he feels when he has to cover Jason Witten or Jimmy Graham.

Watkins also feels he'll be just fine on the tackling part.

"I made all of my tackles in the game last week," he said. "I'm confident in my tackling because I've been doing it day in and day out this summer. Bigger backs like Ryan (Mathews), smaller backs. You get in the game, it's not the first time you've had contact.

"The biggest difference playing safety is you've got to be more aggressive, take better angles. You miss a tackle at corner, other guys might be able to get him. You miss one at safety, you might be giving up a touchdown."

Watkins said safeties clearly have more run responsibility in Schwartz's defense than they had in Davis'.

"In Billy's scheme, the safeties were basically cleanup players (against the run),'' he said. "Now, we have gaps that involve the tackles and the guards and all this. There's a lot that goes into it.

"But this defense is very similar - almost identical - to the one I ran in college. A lot of the carry-over is already there. So it's (been) pretty easy for me (to learn)."

A cornerback almost always is viewing a run play from the same angle - outside-in. Not so for a safety. Depending on where he's lining up, it might be outside-in or inside-out. He might be 20 yards back in the middle of the field or he might be up in the box.

"Your angles always change," said Jenkins, another corner-turned-safety. "And in a league where every running back is cutting back and all that, that's something you have to work on daily."

For a safety, Jenkins said tackling is "probably 10 percent technique and 90 percent want-to."

"Willingness (to tackle) will save you from bad technique," he said. "If you go in with the right demeanor, a lot of times, if you can just trip a guy up or be more aggressive than he's expecting (it'll be fine).

"I think Jaylen tackles pretty well. He can obviously be a little more consistent where he's a sure tackler and you have no questions at all. But I think he's done well so far. Particularly in the last seven days of camp."

That's the good news. The bad news is the final roster cutdown still is 17 days away.

@Pdomo Blog: philly.com/Eaglesblog