Eagles' Allen may have a future in Philly

Posted: December 02, 2013

Sometime between late September and today, people stopped talking about Nate Allen.

This is not a bad thing. NFL defensive backs are much like umpires. The less you notice them, the less aware you are of how they're carrying out their jobs, the better. By that standard, Allen has been invisible lately, especially in comparison with the first few weeks of this Eagles season.

Those weeks were hard to forget. The Eagles surrendered piles of yards and points in losing three of their first four games, and as one of the starting safeties in a beleaguered defensive backfield, Allen was a conspicuous offender. He wasn't a "scapegoat," per se, because the word implies a lack of culpability, and safety play was certainly one of the defense's big problems early on. He appeared to have trouble with the very basics of his position: tackling, covering, recognizing where he was supposed to be each play. As targets go, they didn't come easier than Allen, and since he becomes a free agent after this season, it was natural to think he was playing his way out of town.

But over the last month, the Eagles defense hasn't been the sieve it once was, and Allen, like several of his teammates, appears to have an improved understanding of coordinator Billy Davis' scheme, just as Davis has a better understanding of his players' strengths and liabilities.

"It's not all these big plays and everybody says, 'Oh, there is Nate,'" Davis said. "It's just down in and down out, Nate is taking care of his job."

In fact, according to the scouting and statistical agency Pro Football Focus, Allen is the second-best tackling safety in the entire NFL, behind only Rafael Bush of the New Orleans Saints, and he ranks fifth among safeties in "pass-rushing productivity" - that is, in pressuring, harassing, or sacking an opposing quarterback when he blitzes. Even Allen chuckled at that finding.

"I've always gotten criticism for not being able to tackle," he said. "That's the media for you. That's why I don't pay attention to what's being said. I just focus on my game."

Snickers aside, then, maybe it's time to ask a question that once would have seemed ridiculous: Should the Eagles re-sign Allen?

There's no yes-or-no answer to this yet, of course, particularly since the Eagles still have five games left in their regular season. Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, and the rest of the Arizona Cardinals could carve up the secondary on Sunday, and this entire debate will seem silly. But let's assume that Allen's improvement is genuine and sustainable. Wouldn't it make sense to retain a safety who's familiar with and capable in Davis' system?

"He's been great on communication, vocal on Sundays, physical on Sundays. I look for him on every call and trust him," Eagles cornerback Cary Williams said. "I understand what it's like to take criticism. This is a tough place to play, and you've got to understand the media's going to be there. . . . He took responsibility, took ownership of the situation. He didn't pout about it. He didn't cry. He didn't pass the onus on to somebody else. He handled it like a true professional."

That sort of praise from a sympathetic teammate is fine as far as it goes, and Allen did say he'd like to stay in Philadelphia: "Been here four years. Like the system. Like the guys I play with." But there are other factors to consider.

The Eagles already have one promising young safety in Earl Wolff, and though those PFF rankings suggest Allen is actually a pretty underrated player - the kind of safety who thrives "in the box," playing closer to the line of scrimmage - they also come with a caveat. In his system, Davis doesn't put one safety near the line of scrimmage and another deep. Instead, he divides the field in half. One safety covers the left side; the other, the right. And among the 89 safeties that PFF ranked based on coverage ability and efficiency, Allen ranked 61st. Eh.

Again, this will not be a simple decision for the Eagles, and it's not one they necessarily need to make anytime soon. So if nothing else, give Nate Allen credit for this: His future here has become a discussion worth having, and back in September, who'd have thought that?


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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