Next in our ongoing series, we will be taking a look at the safety position. The Eagles secondary will look radically different without Malcolm Jenkins in 2020. Who will step in to take his place? How does the position grade out? What are the top storylines?
Eagles Positional Breakdown Archives
Malcolm Jenkins is gone and that leaves a huge leadership void in this secondary. Rodney McLeod will look to take a step forward after a lackluster 2019 campaign and help fill that void. McLeod has been in the league a long time and has the veteran leadership presence and leadership that the Eagles need on the back end of the defense.
Unfortunately, following an injury in 2018 McLeod looked like he lost a step athletically and it showed up all over the field last season.
In 2019, including the playoffs, the Eagles allowed 16 pass plays of 40+ yards, or just a hair under one/game. No team allowed more. I found all of them, plus some other big plays that were just shy of 40 yards. (Story, and thread): https://t.co/sFoQ3VUdJ0— Jimmy Kempski (@JimmyKempski) February 9, 2020
According to Jimmy Kempski, the Eagles allowed a league-high 16 pass plays of 40+ yards.
They are all compiled in the above twitter thread if you want to relive the bad memories. But if you want me to save you some time I can tell you that the main problem was 2 fold:
- The cornerbacks were bad
- Rodney McLeod was too slow to cover sideline to sideline from a single high alignment
Problem #1 has hopefully been solved with the addition of CB Darius Slay, but problem #2 doesn’t have a good solution. Hopefully the newfound playmakers at corner will be able to better mask the athletic deficiencies of McLeod in 2020.
Jalen Mills is a highly versatile defensive back. At LSU he played both corner and safety so he has the background to play the safety position. Unfortunately, in the last 4 years he not only hasn’t cross-trained at the position, but both Jim Schwartz and Jalen Mills have repeatedly scoffed at the idea that Mills would ever play safety. What caused the dramatic pivot this offseason? It seems to be a needs-based decision after the release of Malcolm Jenkins.
Jim Schwartz loves Jalen Mills and he wanted him back so he was signed to fill a new position. In a normal offseason, it would be a tall task to switch positions like this. In a COVID shortened offseason with no preseason to work out the kinks, this feels like a disaster is brewing. The biggest thing that Mills has going for him is his confidence and mentality to never back down from a challenge. Fingers crossed Mills is able to adjust to the position quickly.
Will Parks has cornerback experience in his background, something that Jim Schwartz loves in his safeties. Signed from Denver on a 1-year deal, Parks looked like an insurance policy for Jalen Mills and a lock for the 3rd safety role prior to the draft. With the addition of K’Von Wallace that lock on the 3rd safety role could be in jeopardy as many expect Wallace to make a strong push for playing time as a rookie.
K’Von Wallace was widely acclaimed as the best pick of the draft by GM Howie Roseman. He is a highly versatile defensive back who is more of a positionless player than a true safety. Last season at Clemson, Wallace took 369 snaps as a slot corner, 208 snaps in the box, and 96 snaps deep as a safety. In coverage, his strength is playing the robber role in inverted cover 2, a role that Malcolm Jenkins notably struggled with during the 2019 season.
Wallace is likely a special team ace and sub-package defender in year 1 but he has the ability to challenge for the starting nickel role and 3rd safety role if it all comes together for him quickly. There is a lot of upside with Wallace and Eagles fans have every reason to be excited to see him on the field.
The Eagles traded DT Bruce Hector for Rudy Ford last season with the hopes that he could provide some depth at safety and be a core special teamer. He did play on special teams but frankly was terrible in that role, showing up with key penalties and very few tackles. With the addition of Parks and Wallace, Ford could be on the outside looking in when it comes to competing for a roster spot in 2020.
Marcus Epps played in a limited role as a 3rd deep safety in 2019 without much to show for it. Epps wasn’t very good in coverage and was ultimately bailed out in a few situations by overthrows and missed reads. It will likely be a race between Epps and Ford to see who can fill the most roles on special teams and keep a roster spot.
Position Grade and Final Thoughts
Malcolm Jenkins is gone and he may never be replaced. He was the leader of the defense, a safety/linebacker/nickel corner, and the ultimate iron man. In his 6 seasons in Philadelphia, Jenkins played almost 99% of the snaps and didn’t miss a single defensive snap in the last 2 seasons. In addition, he insisted on playing special teams and was quite productive there as well.
Replacing Jenkins won’t be done by 1 person. The question is if the trio of Jalen Mills, Will Parks, and K’Von Wallace can band together to fill that void. There are major concerns about all three of them: Mills is changing positions, Parks is changing teams/schemes, and Wallace is a rookie, all during an unprecedented offseason.
The Biggest Question
However, the biggest question at safety for this season doesn’t have anything to do with Mills, Parks, or Wallace. The biggest question is if Rodney McLeod can bounce back in 2020 and regain some of the athleticism that his 2018 injury seems to have robbed him of. If he isn’t able to do that it could be yet another long year for the back end of the Eagles defense.