Safeties Allen, Wolff in Eagles' only battle for starting spot

Nate Allen , a four-year veteran, finished last season strong. He's been working with the first team. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Nate Allen , a four-year veteran, finished last season strong. He's been working with the first team. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 28, 2014

A year ago, the Eagles had one of the NFL's most intriguing training camp competitions at football's most important position.

This year, they have kickers and backup quarterbacks in faux battles and only one legitimate competition for a starting spot.

Alex Henery is destined to beat out rookie Carey Spear as the kicker. Mark Sanchez is the clear favorite to back up quarterback Nick Foles ahead of Matt Barkley.

And while cornerback Nolan Carroll could push to start or some other under-the-radar player could supplant an incumbent at training camp, the contest between Nate Allen and Earl Wolff at safety could stretch up to and past the start of the season.

"I'm interested just like you guys," safety Malcolm Jenkins said, "to see how it plays out."

It is a contest of contrasting styles. Allen is the veteran; Wolff is the youngster. Allen is better-suited to play as a centerfielder; Wolff thrives in the box. Allen covers better than he defends the run; Wolff plays downhill better than up. Allen isn't a big hitter; Wolff struggles in the secondary.

The Eagles prefer their safeties to be equally skilled at all disciplines. The safeties should be interchangeable - right and left instead of back and front. If the offense switches, the safeties, too should be able to shift from free to strong or strong to free.

Jenkins was acquired this offseason because of his versatility. The former cornerback can move opposite the slot receiver and run with him. Jenkins is said to be a superior reader of offenses who can effectively communicate on-the-fly changes on the back end.

He has worked with Allen on the first team since the start of the offseason, but he has also taken Wolff under his wing. The hard work starts in the meeting rooms.

"It's not what you do out on the field, it's what you do before you get out there," Jenkins said Saturday after the Eagles' first training camp practice at the NovaCare Complex. "I know me, Nate, and Earl have all sat down in meetings. . . . So when we go out there all it takes is a look or a point."

Both safeties must be able to communicate switches. Wolff, as expected, struggled with zone concepts in his rookie season. He improved after being pressed into duty midseason, but a sprained knee derailed the last two months.

He returned healthy in the spring, but with Jenkins on board and Allen re-signed for another year, Wolff said he understood his place on the depth chart.

"With the way I finished, I didn't expect to be handed the job," Wolff said. "Nate finished the season, and he started every game. He played well. I wasn't mad."

Wolff said defensive coordinator Bill Davis has focused on his eye placement. The second-year safety said he tends to stare in his zone drops.

"I think if you asked him questions in terms of anything we're doing, he could answer it," coach Chip Kelly said. "But now can he implement it? Is it happening like that?" Kelly asked while snapping his fingers

Allen has had as much time in Davis' defense as Wolff, but he's been around the block with several different schemes. He's had four coordinators in his first four years, and for the first since "maybe college," he said, he's entering his second season in the same defense.

"It is nice having that second year, but you play the cards that are dealt," Allen said. "I think it's definitely helped me mature as a player."

Allen was a better safety at the end of last season than he ever was before, but the Eagles brought back someone who may never be a difference maker. There aren't many of those at safety anymore. Jarius Byrd was an available free agent this offseason, but he nearly broke the Saints' bank.

The Eagles have had a safety problem for five years, but Jenkins with Allen or Wolff may be the most promising combination they've had since Brian Dawkins left. The Saints, it should be noted, opted to let Jenkins walk at one-third the price of Byrd.

The Eagles have some depth with Chris Maragos, who was added mostly to aid special teams but is better-equipped than his predecessor, Colt Anderson, at backpedaling on defense.

Rookie Ed Reynolds will have time to learn. He missed most of OTAs because of Stanford's late graduation, but insists that he has caught up and that playing only as a free safety his last two years of college won't affect him.

"I don't think it's holding me back at all," Reynolds said.

The only open job, though, is Allen's to lose.

"Nothing," he said, "is ever in stone."

Foles, who rallied to unseat Michael Vick at quarterback after losing last year's camp competition, can attest to that.


jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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