Rodney McLeod has always had a significant role with the Eagles as their last line of defense. But with Malcolm Jenkins’ departure, Jalen Mills’ position switch, the addition of cornerback Darius Slay, several other new faces in the secondary, and a new defensive-backs coach, the safety will be counted on more than ever to be the quarterback of Jim Schwartz’s ever-evolving defense.
The Eagles might not have released Jenkins had they not be able to retain McLeod. When McLeod arrived here in 2016, Jenkins was the vocal leader both on the field and off. McLeod took a back seat, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have those abilities, as well, or that he didn’t have any influence.
But McLeod says that he’s prepared to fill that vacancy.
“I was always considered a leader in a different facet before … but I found a different way to lead, more about actions and playing my role as needed,” McLeod said Thursday during a video news conference. “I think now with the absence of Malcolm, I will be needed to be a lot more vocal, particularly in the defensive [backfield] and on the team.”
Certainly, in terms of making calls. The post safety on most teams is typically the play-caller in the secondary. Jenkins, who spent most of his time closer to the line, handled most of those responsibilities with the Eagles. But McLeod will return to a role he predominantly had with the Rams.
Mills, who is the front-runner for the other safety job, will assist. But he will likely have enough on his plate as he transitions from cornerback. McLeod has eight years of experience, four in Schwartz’s defense, and while his unassuming ways migh diminish his reputation outside the NovaCare Complex, he has a track record of consistency.
The Eagles weren’t initially aggressive in their pursuit of McLeod in free agency. A year after cutting his salary, they waited until negotiations with Jenkins hit a dead end before signing McLeod to a two-year, $8.65 million contract in March. But other considerations, namely the team’s appraisal of the safety position, factored more than its opinion of the 30-year-old.
McLeod had an under-the-radar, solid 2019, especially coming off a knee injury that ended his previous season after just three games. He confirmed that he had an offseason procedure — “Just general maintenance work,” McLeod said — but declined to go into further detail.
But he said that he’ll be ready for Week 1 after playing in all 17 games, including the playoff loss to the Seahawks, last season, when he was second on the team in tackles with 108 behind Jenkins, and tied Jenkins with four turnovers (two interceptions and two forced fumbles).
McLeod was still part of the secondary that had some dreadful stretches a year ago, particularly early. There was a three-game reprieve in November, but the struggles – mostly confined to the cornerback position – returned against the Dolphins and at key moments vs. Seattle in January.
“As a secondary, I felt that we were a little disrespected at times,” McLeod said. “And I think now it’s time to live up to that standard, a standard that’s been set by people that played way before us – the Brian Dawkinses of the world, the Troy Vincents, Malcolm.
“When you think of guys who have put on the jersey before, we owe them that. We want to get back to this secondary taking over this defense and winning the game and putting the game on our back.”
It’s been a while since the Eagles had a secondary with that kind of standing. They made numerous additions during the offseason -- including hiring Marquand Manuel to coach the defensive backs after Cory Undlin took the Detroit Lions’ defensive coordinator post – but the most substantial was trading for and signing the 29-year-old Slay.
The three-time Pro Bowler gives Schwartz his first bona fide corner who can follow a team’s top receiver for the Eagles.
“It makes my job a lot easier as a safety, I’ll tell you that,” McLeod said. “When we have guys of his caliber that can cover and get up in front of the receiver’s face, throw off timing for the quarterback, and allow me to go sideline to sideline.”
Schwartz wouldn’t, last week, commit to having Slay exclusively man-defend one receiver. And it’s understandable. It would likely require the rest of the secondary to play a certain way when that hasn’t been Schwartz’s approach.
He spoke of the effort made to disguise the Eagles’ coverages, especially after the 2017 Super Bowl, when Tom Brady needed only pre-snap motions to know whether he was going up against man or zone. And the last thing Schwartz wants to become is predictable.
More than likely, the Eagles will selectively utilize Slay’s one-man skills.
“I think you’re going to see a new 2020 defense,” McLeod said.
Slay’s counterpart will likely be one of two returning corners: Avonte Maddox or Sidney Jones. Rasul Douglas will also be in the mix. But Nickell Robey-Coleman is probably the new face in the slot. And Will Parks, another free-agent addition, might be the leading candidate for the third safety/big nickel spot.
Parks will compete for one of the top two safety positions, as will fourth-round rookie K’Von Wallace, but Mills and McLeod have been meeting individually since the spring to watch film of the Eagles’ 2020 opponents to go over calls and communication.
“I told him that I didn’t want to switch anything he did,” Mills said Thursday, “because he’s been successful at that spot.”
But McLeod will be front and center on defense, especially with an inexperienced linebacker group. He isn’t looking to replicate the fiery Jenkins. A former undrafted rookie and one of the smaller safeties, McLeod has relished his underdog status in the league. He talks softly off the field but carries a big stick on it.
“I’m looking to fill those shoes but do it in my own way because I am my own person,” McLeod said. “We lead very differently.”