In free agency, Eagles' best bet at safety is Malcolm Jenkins

Posted: March 10, 2014

Aside from cost, the Eagles are unlikely to pursue free-agent safeties Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward because neither is an ideal schematic fit.

Instead, the best fit may be the Saints' Malcolm Jenkins.

The Eagles want versatility on defense and safeties that are interchangeable. That has been the trend in the NFL in recent seasons, but the Seahawks' success with a traditional free and strong safety could have some teams opting to go old-school.

The problem with that thinking is that most teams don't have a centerfielder as athletic and instinctive as Earl Thomas or a near-the-box counterpart as fast and physical as Kam Chancellor.

"I think the most important job for us as a personnel staff is to get the players that fit our scheme, that our coaches are asking for," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said last month at the NFL combine. "So certain guys that may be highly rated by other teams are not going to be factors for us because they don't fit."

The Eagles safeties last season - Nate Allen and either Patrick Chung or Earl Wolff - took turns playing back or moving up depending on the defensive call or the offensive formation. Sometimes they both played back in a Cover 2, but the basic premise allowed defensive coordinator Bill Davis to have flexibility with his coverages.

Several options in free agency would seem to fit the profile of a cost-efficient, versatile safety the Eagles could be interested in acquiring with Allen and Chung unlikely to return.

Here are some names to remember, in the order of likelihood the Eagles sign them and with notes from two NFL evaluators - a senior NFC scout and an AFC pro scout:

Malcolm Jenkins (6-foot, 204 pounds), Saints (5-2 odds of Eagles signing him). New Orleans, with second-year safety Kenny Vacarro and the rising Rafael Bush, isn't expected to retain the 26-year-old Jenkins. He can play both free and strong safety and has experience covering slot receivers. He has "zone awareness to anticipate routes with good range to get over the top in coverage," the NFC scout said. But he's "tight in the hips, which is why he was moved to safety. It limits his ability to transition in man coverage." He missed 16 tackles last season, per Pro Football Focus, but Jenkins "is tough and sticks his nose in on ballcarriers," said the AFC scout, who added that he's a "pro's pro and respected by his peers."

Mike Mitchell (6-1, 220), Panthers (5-1 odds). Mitchell, who turns 27 in June, signed a one-year deal last offseason and played on one of the league's best defenses. "He was a jack of all trades for Carolina but missed too many tackles," the AFC scout said. But he's "physical, aggressive, and plays with good speed and range." The NFC scout said that Mitchell was "better the closer he is to the line of scrimmage. He's not a 'go and get it' type of safety, but he will make the plays that come to him."

Jairus Byrd (5-10, 210), Bills (12-1 odds). Byrd could stay in Buffalo, but it may be difficult after the Bills signed safety Aaron Williams to a four-year, $26 million contract with $14.6 million guaranteed last week. If Williams got that much, what will Byrd ask for? Anything over $20 million guaranteed would be more than almost every player on the Eagles roster and would probably take them out of the running. If the price drops, then maybe they sniff around. Byrd, 27, is "very smart as the single-high safety and anticipates routes very well," the AFC scout said. He's "not a killer as a run supporter but is a solid tackler," the NFC scout said.

Chris Clemons (6-0, 208), Dolphins (15-1 odds). Clemons started every game for Miami over the last two seasons, but neither scout was impressed with the 28-year-old. He played more strong safety last season because he "has late anticipatory skills in the middle of the field," the NFC scout said. His "hands are also suspect." The AFC scout said that Clemons is a "good tackler that limits big plays but will always leave you wanting more."

Darian Stewart, (5-11, 216), Rams (20-1 odds). Stewart, who will turn 26 in August, is a "good overall athlete" and an interchangeable safety, but he "lacks instincts and is slow pulling the trigger," according to the NFC scout. But the main strike against him is that he can't stay healthy. He missed 11 games over the last four seasons because of injury. The Eagles could probably get him for little.

T.J. Ward (5-10, 211), Browns (25-1 odds). The 27-year-old Ward earned a Pro Bowl nod as a "tough box safety" this past season, but as the AFC scout put it: He's "injury-prone and one dimensional." The NFC scout said he's "inconsistent with his angles in space while lining up his target" and his "limited hips restrict his ability to match up with tight ends in coverage."

Major Wright (5-11, 206), Bears (25-1). Wright had a rough 2013 season, but he's young (25) and a "tough, aggressive tackler with good strength on contact," according to the NFC scout. But "his big issue is his lack of ball skills and he struggles locating the ball in the air."

Others: Stevie Brown, New York Giants; Antoine Bethea, Colts; and Donte Whitner, 49ers.


jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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