Lots of options at safety for the Eagles, but many aren't great

Posted: February 25, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS - Figuring out whom the Eagles may target in free agency, especially at safety, requires ingenuity, projection, and mostly guesswork, since every team at the NFL combine has made a concerted effort to keep its plans under wraps.

But with as many as four of their safeties unlikely to return for 2014, the Eagles are expected to address a position that has plagued them - and so many other teams around the NFL. And knowing where they went wrong over the last five years could help narrow the field.

With more than two weeks until the start of free agency, though, the class is not yet set. Jairus Byrd, considered the top safety, will be franchise-tagged by the Buffalo Bills, according to an NFL Network report. And the Cleveland Browns' T.J. Ward also is expected to stay with his team.

Even without those two, there are viable options for the Eagles, especially if they want to continue to sign mid-tier free agents, or at least avoid reaching to fill holes.

But they need a starter, possibly two if Earl Wolff isn't handed a spot in his second season. And there is a handful of serviceable safeties that should be improvements over Nate Allen and Patrick Chung.

They just aren't going to wow anyone.

"Sometimes the option is just to get through the moment and to do some stopgap things, and I'm not necessarily saying that's what we have to do at a particular position," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said last week. "But when you look at the teams that have won the championships over the last couple of years, they're not perfect at 22 spots."

The Eagles have gone down the stopgap path the last several years, in part because they didn't connect on Allen and Jaiquawn Jarrett after they were drafted in the second round. But they didn't hit in free agency, either.

Sean Jones, Marlin Jackson, Jarrad Page, O.J. Atogwe, Kenny Phillips, and Chung were all swings and misses. But almost everyone had a significant mark against him before signing, usually that he was injury-prone.

While Roseman has advised against dumping Mercedes dollars into a position that may not warrant a big contract, it may be time to invest more at safety rather than continue buying from the used-car lot.

"We've talked a lot about it, and we've talked a lot about Brian Dawkins. People have talked a lot about the position, and it's understandable," Roseman said. "But you can't make up great players at a particular position, and if you do and you use a resource on that, you're going to miss out on somewhere else, and it's really going to weaken your team."

There are options in the draft, but only Louisville's Calvin Pryor and Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are projected to start immediately. Both could be gone by the time the Eagles select at No. 22 in the first round.

Plus, the Eagles aren't going to wait until May's draft to find starting safeties. They could very well re-sign Allen and award Wolff the job, but there are opportunities to upgrade, and the buzz at the combine was that the Eagles were looking to do so.

Considering his combination of upside, age, size, and market value, Malcolm Jenkins may be the safety the Eagles target. A converted cornerback, Jenkins has never quite lived up to expectations, but at only 26 he could benefit from a change of scenery and scheme.

New Orleans has promising second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro and a waiting-in-the-wings Rafael Bush, so Jenkins could be expendable. But the Eagles won't overpay.

It's difficult to say how much Jenkins could get, but if Byrd set the market with a long-term deal worth about $9 million a year, Jenkins conceivably could get a little less than half.

Last March, the Eagles signed Chung for three years, $10 million, with $4 million guaranteed. Phillips' deal was incentive-laden, and he earned only about $250,000 in workout bonuses before being released.

The 6-foot, 204-pound Jenkins has missed only seven starts at safety over the last four seasons. He is versatile and would function as an interchangeable safety in Bill Davis' scheme, but he struggles at times in pass coverage and as a consistent tackler.

But so do many safeties. He is widely considered a high-character teammate and hard worker and hails from Piscataway, N.J.

If other teams price out the Eagles, there are other young, free-agent safeties who may fit the mold.

The Chicago Bears' Major Wright struggled last season. But he is only 25 and played on one of the league's worst defenses. Were his problems of his own doing or a product of a wretched defense?

Mike Mitchell of the Carolina Panthers was part of one of the league's best defenses, but the 6-0, 210-pound 26-year-old was not strong against the run and missed 18 tackles in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus.

The Miami Dolphins' Chris Clemons is older at 28, but he hasn't logged as many miles in five seasons. Like Jenkins, Wright, and Mitchell, he has had issues completing open-field tackles.

The Colts' Antoine Bethea (29), the 49ers' Donte Whitner (28), and the Titans' Bernard Pollard (29) are on the older side, but each has vast experience and a proven track record.

The Eagles can wipe the slate clean if Allen, Chung, Kurt Coleman, and Colt Anderson don't return.

"I think," Roseman said, "that you've got to look at it as an opportunity."

But will they take advantage of it?


jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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