Rodney McLeod joined the Eagles in 2016, and he and Malcolm Jenkins quickly formed the team’s smartest, most seamless safety combo of this century.
The Eagles drafted Jalen Mills to play cornerback that same year; he watched the McLeod-Jenkins partnership develop and flourish. When management decided to let Jenkins walk into free agency this offseason, and gave Mills first crack at replacing him, nobody knew better than Mills that he needed to bond quickly with McLeod.
If there ever was a year designed to thwart such an aim, this would be it. No OTAs or minicamp, because of the coronavirus. No preseason. Even now, teams are limited to walkthroughs. Real practice starts Aug. 12, pads go on Aug. 17, and the season opener is scheduled for Sept. 13, at Washington.
Mills and McLeod took matters into their own hands. In addition to the virtual position sessions this spring, they started their own review.
“We have meetings with our coaches, but we also took it a step further and started meeting individually, to start watching film together, work on calls, communication, making sure he sees the games the right way, as he’s now switching positions,” McLeod said Thursday on a Zoom call with reporters.
“The hardest part for him is not really the defense, right? He knows all the schematics. But it’s now lining up in a different spot. It’s now him understanding and grasping, like, ‘Where do I need to have my eyes here? How are you seeing things?’
“I believe the chemistry is going to be a lot easier than a lot of people think. And so far, so good. It seems like even in the couple of days that we’ve been together as a unit, he’s even taken it a step further. … I’m very confident that we will be good once Week 1 hits, and he’ll be ready to rock and make a lot of plays at his new position.”
Whenever Mills is asked about the switch, he brings up that he played safety his last two years at LSU. But he has been a corner in Jim Schwartz’s defense, except for special packages at times, such as in last season’s New England game.
Having played the position in college or in occasional special Eagles coverages doesn’t exactly make him Jenkins, who switched from corner to safety nearly a decade back, with New Orleans, the team he returned to this year as a free agent.
Mills said Thursday that he and McLeod watched every 2019 Eagles game together. He said he wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to cross up his partner.
“I may say something [incorrectly], and it might throw him off or slow him down,” Mills said. “I know the defense, I just wanted to get the exact verbiage that he may have been using in that game.”
Safeties don’t have the boundary to work with, the way corners do; they work more in the middle of the field, amid much traffic. But Mills said he thinks communication, in general, will be his biggest adjustment. He has to make sure other players know what they are supposed to do.
“The communication part – at corner, my four years with the Eagles, I could just get a hand signal from the sideline, if I couldn’t hear the Mike linebacker getting the call from Schwartz. … I can still get that same hand-signal, but my far corner might not know [the call],” Mills said. “Or that linebacker sitting next to me might not know, or that defensive end might not have heard it. Just communicating to each and every person [is an adjustment].”
The Eagles brought in veteran Will Parks as a free agent and drafted another safety, K’Von Wallace, in the fourth round, but it’s clear the team sees Mills as the 2020 starter. The nature of this abbreviated preparation period gives him a big edge, in that Parks and Wallace are trying to learn Schwartz’s scheme.
“For a guy like Jalen, his learning curve isn’t near as steep as a new player, or a rookie going through,” Schwartz said last week. “With Jalen, we’ve seen things from him that match the safety position. He’s tough. He’ll tackle. He has range. He has instincts. We like his vision at that position. And we’ve seen players in the past sort of transition that same way, whether it’s Malcolm Jenkins, who we’ve had experience with. But you’ve seen it across the league.
“Jalen has played the [safety] technique when he’s been a corner. And he’s an experienced player. … He checked a lot of boxes for us when it came to making that transition. Jalen’s a good leader for us. ... He brings an edge to the defense. And I think you might even see that a little bit more when he’s inside at the safety position as opposed to being all the way out on the perimeter.”
It’s hard to know what to make of the Eagles’ proposed 2020 secondary.
Jenkins, the most honored member of the 2019 group, a rock since his arrival in 2014, is gone. But the Eagles think they finally have a shutdown corner in Darius Slay. With Nickell Robey-Coleman added to the nickel corner competition, and a much-lauded draftee in Wallace, they actually seem to have some depth, after grabbing guys off practice squads to play in games each of the last two seasons.
If Mills can be a reliable safety, and if the group’s injury luck is a little better, this could be the best secondary Schwartz has had here, since he arrived with Doug Pederson in 2016.
McLeod said the Eagles right now are “trying to take advantage of every minute and second and hour that we have together,” even though the opener might seem far away.
“We’re building our connection and chemistry right,” he said. “Guys are getting up to speed. I feel confident about the group that we have, man. We’re all professionals, and guys are committed. That’s what you need.