The storyline that wouldn’t go away last spring and summer is back again. Nate Allen or Earl Wolff? Earl Wolff or Nate Allen?
The steady vet or the promising upstart?
Right now, just like it was last year at this time, the answer is Nate Allen.
“Nate's the first guy up,” coach Chip Kelly said Thursday. “And Earl is in running with the second group right now. And both have done a great job in the offseason program. We're excited to see those guys play it out.”
Of course, Kelly and his staff have seen this act play out once before.
The veteran Allen and rookie Wolff battled all last year throughout OTAs and training camp for the right to start opposite Patrick Chung. The coaches never really intended to open the season with Wolff, a fifth-round pick from N.C. State, but they split reps between both safeties until finally settling on Allen.
In the end, the odd man out ended up being Chung, whose injuries led to Allen and Wolff manning the safety tandem as the calendar turned from fall to winter. Allen started all 16 games for the first time his career, playing steadily. Wolff enjoyed some very good moments until a knee injury late in the season sidelined him for six of the last seven games, including the team’s first-round playoff loss to New Orleans.
In the offseason, the Eagles cut Chung, signed Malcolm Jenkins to start and re-signed Allen to a one-year deal. When the team reconvened in April for the offseason program, Wolff observed his name below Allen’s on the depth chart.
“Not at all,” Wolff said. “I ended up getting hurt. Nate played pretty good, to me, to everybody. So I wasn’t mad the first day we came back and I saw his name above mine. He deserved it. I didn’t end the year the way I wanted to, so I didn’t deserve to be up there as the No. 1 guy.”
So the Eagles are back to Square 1. They’ll let competition decide whether Wolff or Allen should be the guy opposite Jenkins.
“Every day I come out here and give it my all,” Wolff said. “Me and Nate have a good friendship, relationship and basically we both know it’s going to come down to -- we’re not sure -- probably till the preseason or whatever. We’re both going to give our all and may the best man win.”
Kelly also drafted Ed Reynolds out of Stanford in the fifth round but Reynolds, like all NFL prospects from Stanford, will miss the OTAs because of an NCAA rule prohibiting college players from attending NFL camps before graduation.
Jenkins, still new to the club, couldn’t handicap the race but seemed to suggest that Allen’s savvy and expertise could trump Wolff’s athleticism.
“It’s too early to say anything about it,” Jenkins said. “Obviously, they’re both competing for that spot. You got Nate, who’s a veteran who knows what to do. He’s gonna be in the right place at the right time. He knows the defense. I think he’s getting better as far as anticipating what offenses are gonna do.
“Earl, he’s very, very athletic. He’s young. But he’s still inexperienced. I think that’s the biggest thing for him is learning the nuances of the game and how to play different positions, what to look for and how to take what the book says that you should do it and apply it to what the play is developing as. We’ll see how that plays out once we get into training camp and get further along.”
Allen and Wolff were surprisingly efficient last year, helping the Eagles resolve their prolonged streak of disasters at the position going back to their head-slapping decision to let franchise icon Brian Dawkins escape to Denver after the 2009 season and then Quintin Mikell walk out the door after 2010.
Allen, a second-round pick whose career kept arcing the wrong way in 2011 and 2012, managed to play 16 games for the first time in his career and seemed to correct the sloppy tackling problems that had become his calling card during those two dark years.
He set a career high with 94 tackles, ranking third on the defense, and recorded at least one sack and one interception in the same season for the first time since his promising rookie year.
Wolff mixed into the defense early before getting his first start Week 4 against the Broncos to replace an injured Chung. In his second career start, he registered eight tackles. He racked up eight more a week later against the Bucs.
If he hadn’t suffered a knee hyperextension that limited him to just one game over the last seven weeks, maybe he’d enter this year’s camp ahead of Allen on the depth chart.
No matter, Wolff said. It’s just another motivational tool.
Not that he really needed one more.
“Even if my name was ahead of him, you know, I know that doesn’t guarantee anything,” he said. “Because even though I’d still be No. 1 on this team, I still want to be the best in this league.”