In 2014, safety could finally be a safe word to use around Eagles fans again.
"I feel like with me, Malcolm [Jenkins], and Nate Allen back there, we definitely have one of the best safety corps, but I'm not into talking," second-year safety Earl Wolff said. "We'll prove it this year."
The proof, of course, must come on the field, but preseason confidence is high. The free-agent addition of Jenkins tops the list of reasons. He signed a three-year contract and left the New Orleans Saints, who opted to give Jairus Byrd, a more high-profile free agent, a longer and more lucrative deal.
"I definitely have a chip on my shoulder, but my motivation right now is more proving to the players on this team what I can do more than proving that to [the Saints]," Jenkins said. "My urgency is to prove my worth to this team right now, but I definitely have a chip on my shoulder from switching teams."
It did not take Jenkins long to make a favorable first impression on his teammates. Wolff immediately started shadowing the six-year veteran when he arrived in Philadelphia.
"Malcolm means a lot," Wolff said. "Just the knowledge and wisdom he brings to a defense. He has won the Super Bowl, so he knows what it takes to do that. I work out with him in the weight room. I sit with him in the meeting room. He tells me a lot. We talk about a lot, especially in the meeting room and then in the weight room. Me and him really get at it."
And it's not just the young guys who are impressed. During the Eagles' workouts with New England earlier this month, linebacker DeMeco Ryans said he thought the defense was leaps and bounds ahead of where it was at the end of last season, when there was vast improvement from the beginning of the season.
"I feel like we're a lot further ahead," Ryans said. "The key element I think is having Malcolm Jenkins come in. He has really added a lot to our defense as far as the leadership he has brought in the back end. He has really helped a lot."
Jenkins, meanwhile, believes he has come into a much better situation than he was initially led to believe.
"When I first signed, I wasn't really familiar with the team, and I guess the first wave of information I got was that we were last in the league in pass defense and that our secondary needed so much help," said the sixth-year veteran from Piscataway, N.J. "But when I got here and got around the guys, the biggest thing I learned and was surprised about was how competitive they were and how talented they were."
Jenkins' research, on film and on the field, showed the Eagles had a rising star in slot cornerback Brandon Boykin and a couple of physical veterans on the outside in Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher. In addition to adopting Wolff, he has witnessed the maturation of Allen into a more confident strong safety. That's what happens when a player gets some continuity with the right defensive scheme.
"I just felt like right away that I fit in with these guys and that we have a special secondary here," Jenkins said. "I don't have to fix this secondary. All I had to do was come in and be me and add that voice. Everything else will fall into place. I think the talent was already here, and that's what surprised me."
The proof, as Wolff pointed out, will have to come in the games that matter. The secondary in general and the safety position in particular had really become a black hole for the Eagles in those years after Dawkins' departure.
From 2000 through 2008, the Eagles were in the top 10 in fewest touchdown passes allowed every season except one (2005), surrendering an average of 16.8 TDs a year. Since 2009, the Eagles have allowed an average of 28.6 touchdown passes per season.
A year ago, the Eagles allowed nearly 290 passing yards per game, the most in the league. But the 25 touchdown passes they allowed were tied for 15th in the league and represented an improvement of eight over the previous season. The Eagles also had 19 interceptions last season, their most since 2010.
In other words, things were moving in the right direction. Now, Jenkins and the rest of the safety corps have a chance to prove the Eagles are ready to take another step forward.