Davis, Eagles sorting out options at safety

Nate Allen and Earl Wolff (right) would like to join veteran Malcolm Jenkins in the starting lineup at safety. The competition continues in Friday's preseason game.
Nate Allen and Earl Wolff (right) would like to join veteran Malcolm Jenkins in the starting lineup at safety. The competition continues in Friday's preseason game. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff)
Posted: August 08, 2014

When the Eagles released the first version of their depth chart earlier this week - what coach Chip Kelly would prefer to call a "seating chart" - the listings for the defensive positions had been scrubbed clean of any reference to an assigned side of the field or to other limited job descriptions.

Defensive coordinator Bill Davis has said his players must be able to adjust to whatever the opposing offenses present. His cornerbacks have to be strong enough to play press coverage and fast enough to run with wide receivers, and to switch sides seamlessly. The outside linebackers have to be able to pressure the quarterback and also drop into coverage. And on and on. Davis is looking for interchangeable parts, and this initial depth chart reflects that, even if only semantically.

Unlike last season - or any season, for that matter - there is no mention of a left defensive end and a right defensive end. The same goes for inside and outside linebackers and the cornerbacks. At the safety position, there is no free safety and no strong safety. Just two safeties in the starting lineup, Malcolm Jenkins and Nate Allen, with Earl Wolff the other starting candidate slotted just behind Allen.

True versatility is a great goal to pursue, and we'll see how close the defense comes to the ideal that the depth chart represents. Trent Cole still will be a better pass rusher than Connor Barwin, and Barwin a better coverage linebacker than Cole. Cedric Thornton probably will spend nearly all his time at left end, with Fletcher Cox on the right. The goal is there, however, and nowhere on the field will the search for complete flexibility be more apparent than at safety.

Davis would like the Eagles to stay in their base 3-4 defense more this season. When he pulled a linebacker from the field for nickel coverage last season, the opponent had success running the ball. To prevent that, he wants to keep his linebackers on the field and challenge the safeties to keep the pass coverage from suffering.

In Jenkins, signed by the Eagles on the first day of free agency, Davis has exactly the sort of safety he wants. Who will join him on the field is the only remaining question. The battle between Allen and Wolff for that other position is one of the few true battles of training camp, and it gets real on Friday night when the Eagles open the exhibition season against the Chicago Bears.

Allen is a four-year veteran. He started every game last season and has started 54 of the 59 games he has played for the Eagles, but it has always been difficult to judge his impact on a game. Even in his official team bio, Allen is termed "a steadying force," which is a slightly vanilla description for someone who plays a thunder-and-lightning position on the field.

Wolff was a rookie last season, a fifth-round draft pick who made an impression as a high-motor player willing to deliver a nasty lick. He won the free-safety position from Patrick Chung one month into the season and relinquished it only because of a knee injury that kept him inactive for five of the final six regular-season games.

So, here we go again. Allen knows the drill. Someone is after his job.

"Ever since I've been here, we talk about it every year," Allen said with a laugh. "That's part of it, and I'm going to let everything play out, and we're all going to make each other better. The old saying is true that everybody's always one play from starting. Everybody's got to work with everybody and get a feel for each other. This is the time to do it."

Depending on what the opponent shows, the Eagles can play two deep safeties, bring one into the box to deter the run and help with coverage on backs or tight ends, or play a hybrid in which one or both of the safeties have strict man-to-man responsibility for a receiver. That is the kind of flexibility Davis seeks, but the question is whether Allen and Wolff really can do all that.

"I think all of our safeties have the skill set of being able to come down and cover a third wide receiver," Davis said. "A lot of teams will put [in] three-wide-receiver personnel groups and [then] run . . . if I have the nickel package, sometimes [nickel cornerback Brandon] Boykin is getting run at. I don't want that. I stay in base, but a safety has to be able to cover that third wide receiver now. So if I have a big, physical, hitting safety that can't cover, then I'm limited."

So far, Wolff is the more physical of the two candidates for the other position, but he still is struggling to cover as well as Allen. He missed a couple of workouts with soreness in the same knee that was injured last season, and that hasn't helped the process.

"I know I can be really good in this league, and that's my goal. My goal is to be great," Wolff said. "I feel I'm getting better and better [at coverage]. I'm learning a lot of little things from Malcolm and Nate. I just want to set a tone early, and I know we're going to be better this season. I know we are."

They need to be. The Eagles were 29th in overall defense last season and dead last for passing yards allowed. Some of that was because their fast-paced offense had them on a field for more minutes than any other NFL defense, but some of it was because they were slow to adjust to the new system and weren't very good at it.

"No excuses, but we're all more comfortable now," Allen said. "Come that first preseason game, we'll be rolling."

Now it's just a matter of seeing who eventually rolls with the starters.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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