Rodney McLeod and Janoris Jenkins started 44 games together in the St. Louis Rams' defensive backfield, the former at safety, the latter at cornerback, and when they became free agents after last season, they would playfully instant-message each other about the possibility of their signing with the same team.
"Trying to do a little package deal if we could," McLeod said Tuesday.
The Jacksonville Jaguars were interested in signing both of them, and the Giants showed some late interest in McLeod before homing in on Jenkins.
"I don't think Philly was interested in Jenk," McLeod said.
So on the same day, March 9, that Jenkins and the Giants agreed to a five-year contract, McLeod signed with the Eagles for five years. The teams play Thursday. The Giants are 10-4 and have given up the third-fewest points in the NFL, and the Eagles are 5-9 and McLeod has had his toughness questioned for his apparent reluctance to attempt touchdown-stopping tackles in losses to the Bengals and the Ravens.
It sure looks as if the Eagles made a mistake when they signed McLeod instead of Jenkins, and maybe they did, but not because McLeod did or did not hit an opposing ballcarrier near the goal line or because McLeod isn't a good safety. He is. The mistake was in the Eagles' prioritizing of positions and their allocation of salary-cap space, and there's an argument to be made that those very factors have been the cause of McLeod's tentativeness.
Let's begin with those two touchdowns: a short run by the Bengals' Jeremy Hill on which McLeod froze and a long run by the Ravens' Kenneth Dixon on which McLeod seemed hesitant to join the play and drag down Dixon before he reached the end zone. With the Rams, McLeod had earned a reputation as one of the NFL's top safeties for his ability to read a play, arrive on time, and - despite his relatively diminutive 5-foot-10, 195-pound frame - deliver a crushing hit. He did nothing over the first 11 weeks of this Eagles season to suggest that reputation wasn't the truth, and it doesn't make sense that he'd suddenly decide to stop tackling people out of fear or laziness or indifference. What happened?
"There's a big difference between being a safety and, I like to tell those guys, being a 'risky'," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "It's a different thing. But you don't want a safety that's ready, fire, aim, and you don't want a safety that's ready, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim, never pull the trigger. . . . I want him to get back to early in the season where [he] was a blur everywhere on the field."
"You've just got to know when you can take your shots and when you can't," McLeod said. "There are certain times when you can. I think the [Dixon] play was one of those chances where I probably need to be more overly aggressive. . . . Just trust your teammates to rally to the ball."
So why would McLeod hesitate in those decisive moments? Why wouldn't he trust his teammates to make a play? Well, consider his teammates. Specifically, consider the Eagles' cornerbacks: a rookie seventh-round pick, Jalen Mills; a 31-year-old hobbled by a bad hamstring, Leodis McKelvin; and a player, Nolan Carroll, who has been a marginal starter over his career. That cornerback is one of the Eagles' weaknesses, if not their greatest, is obvious to anyone who has watched them, and though McLeod said, "I think our corners here do a good job," he acknowledged that playing alongside a more talented, more familiar veteran such as Jenkins would have made his job easier.
"Oh, yeah, it does help, just having that comfort with one another, knowing how each other plays," McLeod said. "It would have been nice."
Which brings us to what the Eagles could have done differently. They have used the 1999 season as their template for rebuilding around a rookie head coach (Doug Pederson) and a rookie quarterback (Carson Wentz), and that 1999 team also had Brian Dawkins at free safety, which made the position an overall asset even for a 5-11 club. In signing McLeod to a five-year contract that could pay him as much as $37 million and pairing him with Malcolm Jenkins, the Eagles wanted to be elite again at safety. But the presence of a pair of terrific cornerbacks, whether it was Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor or Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown, freed Dawkins to have a more profound effect on each game. That doesn't mean Dawkins wasn't a magnificent player. It means that, by the nature of their positions, cornerbacks are generally more valuable than safeties.
Would the Eagles, then, have been better served signing Jenkins than signing McLeod? It's not a simple what-if. The Eagles were fresh from having a succession of free-agent corners flop here: Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (who has been just fine for the Giants this season, by the way), Cary Williams, Byron Maxwell. It would be understandable if they were gun-shy about signing another. More, Jenkins' deal with the Giants could top out at $62.5 million. He was much more expensive than McLeod.
Here's a thought, though: Perhaps the Eagles shouldn't have signed Vinny Curry - he of the 11/2 sacks this season - to a five-year, $47.25 million contract that makes him the seventh-highest-paid defensive end in the NFL. Perhaps they could have used that money and cap space better. It would have been nice. Or just nicer.