We pick up our training camp preview at safety, where it appears the Eagles have an even more wide-open competition than at quarterback. It's anybody's guess who will be starting come Week 1.
Is Nate Allen a draft bust?
He’s got one last chance to prove otherwise, but it's looking that way so far. We can be a little quick to judge athletes in this town, however nobody would blame you for being down on Allen. He was enjoying a promising rookie season in 2010 until it was interrupted by a ruptured patellar tendon, and he never quite looked the same the following year, remaining inconsistent up to present day. At best, Allen was essentially invisible in 15 games last season, defending just four passes while creating zero turnovers.
Then again, who didn’t look inconsistent amid the Eagles’ dysfunction in the waning days under Andy Reid, particularly on one of the league’s worst defenses? The secondary especially was a joke, as opposing quarterbacks posted a 99.6 passer rating against Philly – second-highest in the NFL. Sure, that would seem to reflect poorly on Allen, but the cornerbacks were frequently leaving the safeties to fend for themselves, and the safeties were often scratching their heads and looking confused after the fact. It was chaos.
The Birds’ defense probably won’t be an elite unit in their first year under Chip Kelly and defensive coordinator Billy Davis, but that should be because they’re a little short on talent, not for a lack of understanding the scheme. Whatever was going on with Juan Castillo/Todd Bowles/Jim Washburn on the coaching staff over the last two seasons, the secondary appeared to be hung out to dry as a result.
In other words, maybe Allen’s struggles are not all his own fault. Maybe in a less-complex scheme (with a true defensive coordinator), where the other guys in the huddle are in it for more than themselves, he’ll improve. Or maybe the one dubbed “the McNabb Pick” is a bust, and he’ll be exposed no matter where he is or who’s around him. The clock is ticking.
What should we expect from Patrick Chung?
A flawed-but-starting-material player. Chung burst on to the scene during his second season for the Patriots in 2010, but he’s been unable to stay healthy ever since. Then last year not only was he hurt, but his play really dropped off. He took bad angles to the ball, and generally was not as dangerous or effective. The ‘09 second-round pick lost his starting job before the year was out, and New England let him walk in the offseason.
The Eagles scooped him up for three years, $10 million, and penciled him in at one of the safety spots. It’s not simply a case where Chip Kelly is familiar with Chung from their Oregon days, either. The club is hoping they got a genuine inside-the-box presence, somebody who can help out against the run and blitz, plus make the occasional big play in coverage as well.
Chung probably isn’t going to become Brian Dawkins all of a sudden, but safety has been a huge mess for the Eagles ever since Weapon X left. Admittedly this addition looks more like another band-aid than a permanent solution, but having a player who was good enough to start in the Super Bowl a couple years ago means the Birds can finally move on from the likes of Kurt Coleman this summer. That can’t be a bad thing.
Is Kenny Phillips healthy?
That of course is the catch-22 with Phillips. He has a long injury of knee histories, missing almost all of the ’09 campaign after having microfracture surgery on the left, and appearing in just seven games due to a sprained MCL in the left last season. After signing with the Eagles as a free agent in the offseason, already this spring Phillips was held out of practice due to his knee issues.
If the former first-round pick were healthy, the Birds would be getting one of the best cover safeties in the NFL. In 2011, his last full season, he hauled down four interceptions, defended 11 passes, and forced a fumble. There’s a reason the New York Giants let him walk though, the same reason why Philadelphia was able to sign him for one year at just north of the league minimum – those knees.
If Phillips can survive training camp, he has a great chance to be one of the two starters. At this point that might seem like a big “if,” but who can predict these things?
Does Earl Wolff have a chance to start in his rookie season?
Absolutely. I mean, I don’t see anybody definitely holding him back, do you? A fifth-round pick out of North Carolina State, Wolff’s athleticism stands out. He’s not particularly huge at 5-11, 209, but he is strong, and people tend to take notice of players with 4.44 speed and a 39-inch vertical. Watch him jump on to a shelf that’s nearly as tall as he is.
Raw athletic talent won’t win a job alone for Wolff, but with so many question marks above him on the depth chart, he’s got a legit chance at earning playing time. Reporters noted the rookie did get some first-team reps at practices this spring, and while Chip says we can’t read into that stuff too much, this one seems fairly telling given the circumstances.
Allen, Chung, and Phillips are all injury prone and/or are not necessarily going to cut it. Kurt Coleman, Colt Anderson, and David Sims don’t look like threats at the moment. Wolff’s path to the field is fairly clear.
Who will ultimately start at safety for the Eagles?
Chung almost certainly, then either Allen or Phillips in the second spot.
Based on the contract he signed, it appears Chung was brought in to start for at least this upcoming season, although obviously plans can change. On the opposite side Allen has the inside track, but if Phillips can go, he is probably the best – not to mention most-experienced – safety on the roster.
As was mentioned above, don’t sleep on Earl Wolff, either. Either way, just be glad Kurt Coleman could be out of the picture finally.
Andrew Kulp is a freelance writer covering Philadelphia sports for The700Level.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.