May the best Eagle win

Posted: August 01, 2014

AS BATTLES go, this one isn't exactly Antietam.

But so far in Eagles training camp, Nate Allen vs. Earl Wolff at the safety spot opposite Malcolm Jenkins is the only fight over a starting job.

A year ago we had Michael Vick vs. Nick Foles, with the winner leading the team into the season as the starting quarterback. That, you could sink your teeth into, scrutinizing statements from teammates for hidden clues as to who preferred whom, asking Chip Kelly every few days why he hadn't settled on a starter.

Fun times.

But this safety thing? Everybody likes Nate. Everybody likes Earl. Earl and Nate like each other. And in a camp where there is no live hitting and no tackling, how does one know how a safety is playing, really?

Both Allen and Wolff remain upright - no serious injuries so far. Neither Allen nor Wolff seems unduly confused, each playing for the second time around in Bill Davis' defense. After that, well, good luck figuring out what's going on.

Wednesday, Wolff worked with the first team. Yesterday that spot was taken by Chris Maragos, who is in the running to start at safety much in the same way Matt Barkley was part of the quarterback competition a year ago. Maragos was signed from the Seahawks to play special teams. If he plays out of his mind in the preseason, obviously, he might end up starting, but right now the team is more in the mode of giving lip service to his candidacy.

Wolff took part in individual drills but did not practice yesterday, despite wearing pads and a helmet, and afterward he wouldn't say why. He did say he would be back in action, full speed, at today's workout.

Media observers tend to see Allen as having good size (6-1, 210) and speed, but perhaps lacking a visceral, physical quality that comes more naturally to Wolff, last year's 5-11, 210-pound fifth-round rookie. Jenkins, brought in from New Orleans to lead the secondary, was asked this week if Allen and Wolff have contrasting styles.

"I think so, only because of experience," Jenkins said. "Where Nate is a veteran, he knows what he's doing, he's in the right place at the right time. I think what everybody wants to see is him just cut it loose.

"Last year, he was that guy - because he was the veteran, he had to get guys lined up, and that kind of slowed his progression, but I think this year, playing next to me, where you've got two veterans who can make calls, you want to see him cut it loose."

Jenkins left no doubt that he thinks Allen is well ahead of Wolff in knowing the defense and recognizing what the offense is doing.

"Earl is a young player. He's got a lot of talent," Jenkins said. "Everything he's done thus far has been off of raw talent and his athleticism. He just has to learn the game, when it comes to being loud and decisive with his calls, knowing what the offense is giving him. And that all comes with time, playing experience, and learning.

"You've got two different dynamics, but they're both great players. Whoever ends up on that side is going to be more than capable of getting the job done . . . I'm looking forward to seeing them both of them cut it loose, take more chances, kind of see where that range is at. That's the only way you learn as a safety; you've got to push yourself, take chances . . . that way, by the time the season comes, you know where you're at."

Allen, 26, will forever be faulted by some Eagles fans for being the safety the team drafted in the second round in 2010 after passing on Earl Thomas in the first round. After a promising rookie season that ended with a knee injury, he struggled through the 2011 and 2012 seasons, looking hapless in Juan Castillo's defense, behind then-defensive line coach Jim Washburn's wide-9 setup. Fans were more than ready to write off Allen, but after getting the hang of what Davis wanted last season, he played reasonably well, and was brought back for 2014 on a one-year deal.

"Make plays," Allen said yesterday, when asked what he thought he needed to do to nail down the job. "When you see stuff, go make it happen. That's the bottom line."

Davis' defense, Allen said, "puts us all in position to make plays. We have run responsibilities, but we're really pass guys. We emphasize not letting anything get over our head. We play the pass pretty aggressively."

Those plays Allen needs to make - yesterday he cut in front of a receiver and seemed about to intercept a Matt Barkley pass at the goal line. It clanged off his hands.

"It just got away from me," Allen said.

Allen said Wolff is "a heckuva player" who is "coming along real well, learning the defense. I've definitely seen him mature and grow as a player, just from last year . . . He's just making bounds and leaps."

Wolff had started six in a stretch of seven games when his rookie season effectively was ended by a lingering knee injury suffered at Green Bay Nov. 10. Had he remained healthy, he might have nailed down the starting job. Wolff was asked yesterday what he thinks he has to do to win it for good.

"Consistency is the key, and I feel like confidence is the key," he said. "Them being confident in me is also the key . . . everything's getting easier, everything's getting smoother, and I feel like I'm becoming more confident . . . I feel like I can play with anybody, can match up on anybody. I'm a playmaker, and that's just what I want to show."

Wolff said there's nothing uncomfortable about the situation.

"Nate's a great guy," he said. "You wouldn't even know we were in a competition - we talk to each other all the time; he helps me, I help him. May the best man win . . . At the end of the day, I think it'll come down to the preseason [games], who plays better in the preseason."

Jenkins didn't want to try his hand at handicapping.

"I'm watching the competition just like you guys," he said.


On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian

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