Paul Domowitch: Eagles' challenge will be improving at safety

Posted: March 13, 2012

YOU KNOW AND I know that the Eagles need to do something about improving their linebacker situation, and if you slipped a super-sized dose of sodium pentothal into Andy Reid's Slurpee, he'd admit that he knows it, too.

Sometime in the next 6 weeks, either in free agency, which gets under way today, or in next month's draft, or maybe even both, I fully expect Reid and the Eagles to aggressively attack their shortcomings at linebacker.

Maybe they'll sign one of the top linebackers in free agency such as Curtis Lofton or Stephen Tulloch or David Hawthorne. Or maybe they'll use their first-round pick on the draft's top inside linebacker, Luke Kuechly of Boston College. But I'm confident they'll do something. And it won't be coaxing Jeremiah Trotter out of retirement one more time or handing a starting job to a fourth-round rookie with good genes.

"We're trying to find great players, and whether that's linebacker or any other position on our team, we're going into this offseason trying to find the best possible players for our team," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said.

"Obviously, there are certain positions where it's more apparent [that they need help] than others. And we'll look at those. We spend a lot of time looking at our needs, looking at the players in free agency and in the draft, and we're excited about the possibilities."

Alas, linebacker isn't the only area on defense that needs an infusion of playmaking talent. So could safety. But I'm not sure that's as apparent to the Eagles as it is to me. And even if it is, there aren't as many resources available in free agency and in the draft to fix the problem as there are with the linebacker situation.

They've spent second-round picks in the last two drafts on safeties, selecting Nate Allen with the 37th overall selection in 2010 and Jaiquawn Jarrett with the 54th pick last year.

Allen ruptured his patellar tendon late in his rookie season and struggled to come back from it early last year. But he's a solid player with the coverage skills you need at the position in today's pass-happy NFL.

The jury remains out on Jarrett. Hurt by the 4 1/2-month lockout last summer, the former Temple star struggled to get his arms around Juan Castillo's defense and saw limited playing time. He came in with a reputation as a big hitter, but had just two special-teams tackles in 12 games, which was one less than kicker Alex Henery.

Kurt Coleman, a 2010 seventh-round pick, started 13 games at strong safety last season. He finished second on the team in tackles, but at 5-10 and just 190 pounds, he really isn't big enough to be a 16-game-a-year box safety. And despite a team-high four interceptions last season (three compliments of Rex Grossman), he doesn't have the coverage skills to match up with the league's top tight ends and slot receivers.

"He may be the smallest safety in the league," one scout said of Coleman. "I like the way he plays. He has a nose for the ball and he's not afraid to hit anybody. But there's no way you can count on him staying healthy. You're going from 15-yard depth on a full sprint to fill these [running] lanes and blow guys up. It's only a matter of time before he breaks down."

Jarrett was considered a reach last year when the Eagles took him in the second round. Most teams had a fourth-round grade on him. But if the Eagles thought enough of him to draft him that high 11 months ago, it's unlikely they're ready to give up on him already.

Both Roseman and Castillo believe Jarrett will make a big developmental jump this year with a full offseason of field and classroom work. And maybe they're right. We'll see.

"I think what we saw is, that's a signal-caller position," Roseman said. "You get a guy in like that who's a rookie and doesn't have a lot of offseason, maybe it's a bigger adjustment than we thought.

"He's been lifting already. I think he's got a chip on his shoulder. What we're looking to see, and we've told him this, is the nastiness. The stuff that we saw in college that he had, and playing fast. I think that's part of knowing what you're doing. The more he's around - he has an offseason - the better chance he has of being that kind of player."

Even if the Eagles wanted to use free agency or the draft to bolster the safety spot, there aren't a lot of appetizing options. The emergence of tight ends in the passing game has increased the value of good safeties. Three potential free-agent safeties - the Raiders' Tyvon Branch, the 49ers' Dashon Goldson and the Titans' Michael Griffin - all have been franchised.

There were reports over the weekend that the Eagles may be interested in Redskins free-agent safety LaRon Landry. Landry is one of the most talented safeties in the league, a big hitter with sub-4.4 speed. But he's missed 15 of 32 games over the last two seasons with Achilles' problems, ending both the 2010 and 2011 seasons on injured reserve.

It's hard to see the Eagles being willing to give Landry anything more than a 1-year deal. And even if he signed with them, what are the chances of him staying healthy?

After Landry, there are a bunch of hit-or-miss free-agent safeties such as the Bengals' Reggie Nelson, the Jets' Brodney Pool, the Falcons' James Sanders, the Cowboys' Abram Elam and the Bears' Brandon Meriweather.

The draft also isn't especially deep at safety. Alabama's Mark Barron is considered the only first-round-worthy safety, and he won't work out for scouts until later this month as he recovers from an injury. Harrison Smith, a 6-2, 213-pounder out of Notre Dame, is the draft's second-rated safety and figures to go in the second round. The Eagles have two second-round picks, but would they be willing to take a safety in the second round for the third straight year?

"It's not a highly regarded safety class," said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. "I like the two guys at the top end of it - Barron and Smith. After that, it gets kind of interesting because I don't think it's really played itself out yet.

"I think what you'll see is teams trying to take corners because of the proliferation of all the spread sets and safeties coming down on tight ends and slots. There aren't a lot of natural safeties in this draft that can cover a slot. And I think you'll start seeing teams look at some of the bigger corners and say, 'Is he tough enough and smart enough to play inside?' "


Contact Paul Domowitch at pdomo@aol.com.

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