Wolff wants to improve on a solid rookie season

Posted: June 01, 2014

EXAMINED IN its entirety, Earl Wolff's rookie season went pretty well. Though he dropped to the fifth round in last April's draft, the safety from North Carolina State quickly ascended the Eagles' depth chart and even started six games.

But Wolff's inaugural NFL season didn't end favorably. A right knee injury sidelined him in the season's waning weeks, a stretch that included the Eagles' first-round playoff loss to the Saints.

Now back on the field at 100 percent, Wolff finds himself competing with Nate Allen for the starting safety spot next to free-agent acquisition Malcolm Jenkins. Through 3 days of organized team activities, including for most of Thursday's session open to the media, Wolff has taken most of his reps with the second-team defense, while Allen, back on a 1-year deal, practices alongside Jenkins.

On a team that seemingly has few starting gigs up for grabs, the safety competition is the main battle to watch throughout the 99 days separating us from the Eagles' season opener. Coach Chip Kelly indicated Thursday both players have performed well in the team's offseason program. The staff, Kelly said, is "excited to see those guys play it out."

"Every day I come out here, I give it my all," Wolff said after Thursday's OTA at the NovaCare Complex. "Me and Nate, we have a pretty good friendship and relationship. Basically, we both know it's going to come down probably to the preseason. We're both going to give it our all, and may the best man win."

Wolff, 5-11, 210 pounds, played in 11 games last season and, before his injury during the Week 10 win at Green Bay, earned six starts in a seven-game stretch. Did he think his play when healthy would earn him a nod with the first-team this spring?

"Not at all, honestly," he said. "I ended up getting hurt. Nate played pretty good, to me, pretty good to everybody. I wasn't mad the first day we came back and saw his name above mine. He deserved it. I didn't end the year the way I wanted to, so I didn't deserve to be up there as the No. 1 guy."

Playing in 11 games, Wolff totaled 45 tackles and one interception, on a Tony Romo deep ball as the first half expired in the Week 7 loss to the Cowboys. The injury forced him to miss four consecutive games late in the season. He returned Week 16 against the Bears, only to aggravate his knee and miss the regular-season finale against Dallas.

Wolff suited up for the Saints' game, but did not see the field. He was "like a just-in-case guy," as he describes it now, meaning he would have played that night only if another safety went down with an injury.

While nursing his knee and strengthening his quadriceps and hamstring, Wolff spent the offseason training in Florida and at NC State. His knee, he said, "ended up feeling better and better and better as it went on."

"From Year 1 to Year 2, he definitely knows a lot more," cornerback Bradley Fletcher said. "He's getting to his drops. He's staying on top of things. He's doing well."

With the signing of Jenkins and Chris Maragos and the drafting of Ed Reynolds and the versatile Jaylen Watkins, Wolff has more company in the defensive backfield these days. Asked his thoughts when he heard the Eagles were bringing in new safeties, the confident 24-year-old insisted it didn't bother him.

"The type of guy I am, the type of work ethic I have, I know what God has blessed me with," he said. "I know my work ethic. I know I can be one of the top safeties in this league, and that's the way I look at it."

And besides, Jenkins, a 26-year-old veteran, has taken Wolff under his wing. Each morning at 7:30, the two meet to watch film. Wolff will go over Jenkins' notes and pick his brain. They lift weights together, and on the practice field, Jenkins will point out small tips or quarterbacks' tendencies to Wolff.

"He's making me a better player," Wolff said. "His work ethic is crazy. He deserves everything he has. You know, I just met the guy. I just think he can elevate my game, as well as elevate the guys around him."

When Jenkins broke into the NFL with the Saints in 2009, veterans such as Darren Sharper and Roman Harper helped him his transition to safety from cornerback, his position at Ohio State.

"He's a young guy that's really trying to get better," Jenkins said of Wolff. "He's really thirsty for knowledge and trying to understand the game better. He didn't really play the true post safety in college. He was really an in-the-box type of guy. So when they asked him to play deep and play man-to-man, it's a lot of things that he hadn't learned before. I'm interested to see how much he can take it in and translate onto the field."

As far as who will start next to him, Jenkins said it's too early to know.

"You've got Nate, who's a veteran who knows what to do. He's going to be in the right place at the right time and knows the defense. I think he's getting better, as far as anticipating what offenses are going to do," Jenkins said.

"And then Earl is very, very athletic. He's young. But he's still inexperienced. I think that's the biggest thing for him, is learning the nuances of the game and how to play different positions, what to look for and how to take what the book says that you should do and apply it to what the play is developing as.

"We'll see how that plays out as we get into training camp and get further along."


On Twitter: @jakemkaplan

 

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