Every NFL roster has positions where it is deep, and positions where that is just not the case. The Eagles' thinnest position right now is safety, so Doug Pederson's confirmation Friday of MCL surgery for Rodney McLeod could have big implications for the Super Bowl champions' chances of repeating.
Pederson wouldn't confirm that McLeod will go on injured reserve or that his season is over, but unofficially, that is what the team believes. McLeod, 28, has been the starter next to Malcolm Jenkins since McLeod arrived as a free agent from the Rams in 2016. He isn't a superstar, but he is dependable and solid, a strong tackler who is rarely fooled in coverage. He was injured in last week's victory over the Colts, when corner Jalen Mills' helmet struck McLeod's knee.
Corey Graham is McLeod's backup and apparently will get most of McLeod's snaps, but Pederson and Jenkins hinted that other defensive backs will play more of a situational role than they did when McLeod was healthy. Deiondre Hall, who arrived in a trade with Chicago on Sept. 1, is the only other safety on the roster.
Pederson held open the possibility of an acquisition down the line but said the team would play Sunday at Tennessee with the players on the roster.
"I've talked to [defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz] about it and we've worked it in practice this week," Pederson said. "We've got options back there, obviously, moving some guys around. We have a plan and we're comfortable with what we've got."
Jenkins said: "I don't think we'll try to replace Rodney with just one guy, and give somebody Rodney's role. I think based on the personnel and the packages, you can roll in a number of guys. It could be week-to-week, formation-to-formation, package-to-package, whatever those matchups are.
"Obviously, we've cross-trained a lot of guys to make sure we're fine in these types of situations. … We've got guys who can come in and play safety, nickel, dime. It all depends on the matchup."
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Pederson said 35-year-old running back/returner Darren Sproles will not play this weekend, Sproles still bothered by the hamstring problem that sidelined him the past two games. The Eagles listed wide receiver Alshon Jeffery as "questionable," after he missed practice for the second day in a row with a flu-like illness, but Pederson was optimistic Jeffery would make his 2018 debut Sunday, given more time to recover. Pederson said running back Jay Ajayi will be able to play with the small fracture in his back if his pain tolerance holds up. Pederson called Ajayi "a tough kid."
Jenkins and McLeod were effective as a tandem because they worked together so seamlessly. Jenkins noted that they both came up under current Cleveland defensive coordinator Gregg Williams: McLeod in St. Louis when Williams was there, Jenkins before that, when Williams was in New Orleans.
"We were taught from the same foundation, see things the same way, we talk the same language," Jenkins said.
Can Jenkins be as effective with Graham as his partner?
"I think it takes a little bit of time to develop, but we've played together, obviously … been in plenty of packages," Jenkins said. "I think it's just a matter of understanding what he's comfortable with, what I'm comfortable with – each other's strengths, things like that. I don't think it'll take long."
With McLeod in the lineup, the Eagles felt free to move Jenkins around, sometimes using him as a nickel corner. Do they still have those options?
"I think it'll just depend, week-to-week. I usually put myself where the stress in the defense is, so wherever the matchups are needed, that's where I usually end up," Jenkins said. "I don't see that changing."
Hall, 24, was asked if he knows the defense well enough to make a substantial contribution. Graham already had a role in sub packages, which someone will assume.
"Gotta roll with the punches," Hall said. "Just stay in that playbook and be as prepared as possible."
Hall is 6-2, 206. Asked what he brings to the position, he said: "Length, vision, and being able to get to seams in both posts – covering ground."
The Chris Long Foundation on Friday kicked off its "First Quarter for Literacy" drive, in conjunction with United Way, which will attempt to get books to kids in underserved neighborhoods, supporting Philadelphia's "Read by 4th" campaign.
The Eagles' defensive end has pledged to donate nearly a quarter of his $3 million 2018 salary to literacy efforts. Details are available at FirstQuarterForLiteracy.org.
"Most of the kids that interface with our juvenile [court] system are not reading at grade level, they're not functionally literate," Long said Friday. "Most of our inmates in this country – 60 percent – are not functionally literate. Kids that don't read by … the start of fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out. You add poverty to the mix, six times more likely to drop out. That's across all backgrounds."