If nothing else, Eagles are safe at safety again

If nothing else, Eagles are safe at safety again

When was the last time the Philadelphia Eagles had two reliable (let alone competent) safeties in their defensive backfield? We have to go back to 2008, when future Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins and uber-solid Quintin Mikell were patrolling the secondary.

With the re-signing of Nate Allen to a one-year contract on Monday, it appears if nothing else the Eagles will have stability at the safety position again going forward. Allen joins free-agent addition Malcolm Jenkins as the probable starters in ’14, with second-year player Earl Wolff, special teams ace Chris Maragos and likely a player in May’s draft pushing for a spot.

For five seasons, Philly fans have been forced to endure the likes of Quintin Demps, Sean Jones, Macho Harris, Jaiquawn Jarrett, Jarrad Page, Kurt Coleman, Patrick Chung and Allen bereft of his confidence. Now all of a sudden, this appears to be as deep and talented as the position has been since Dawkins departed as a free agent himself.

Have the Birds found the next Weapon X? No. As it stands today, is safety an area of great strength? Let’s not get carried away.

At least defensive coordinator Bill Davis can work with this group.

There was some debate as to whether or not Allen was even going to make the team one year ago. The 2010 second-round pick out of South Florida was already chalked up as a firm bust by the time the new coaching staff arrived. At best, he was a charity case. At worst, he was retained because there was literally nobody else.

Allen was shaky the first few weeks of the ’13 campaign, but grew increasingly comfortable in Davis’ scheme as time wore on. Anecdotally, it’s hard to recall a specific play in the second half of the season where he was burned on a passing play down the field, while the four-year veteran demonstrated immense improvement as a tackler as well.

Allen finished with a career-high 82 tackles to go with 1.0 sack, one interception and one forced fumble. If that’s the 26-year-old’s ceiling, the Eagles could still stand to upgrade. For now, they can get by.

Supporters would point to the fact that Allen has played under four defensive coordinators in four years in the league. Davis himself was critical of the scope of responsibility the previous regime’s Wide-9 front placed on the safeties. It’s unclear how rehab from a torn patellar tendon suffered his rookie season impacted Allen in the past as well.

Meanwhile, Jenkins has arrived in Philadelphia to little fanfare. Fans coveted some of the more expensive and theoretically superior safeties in the free-agent market, so anything less was going to be greeted mildly.

And the fact is Jenkins does have an unspectacular resume. A first-round pick by the New Orleans Saints in ’09, the 26-year-old has registered just 4.5 sacks, six interceptions and six forced fumbles in 63 starts over a five-year career. Metrics site Pro Football Focus ranked Jenkins at or near the bottom of safeties in such areas as tackling, run-stopping and coverage for the ’13 season.

Those questionably reliable measures aside, Jenkins seems like a perfect for Davis’ scheme. He can play either safety position, which means he’s comfortable either in the box or dropping back into coverage. A converted cornerback, the Ohio State product can also cover wide receivers and tight ends man-to-man, which the Eagles will ask of their safeties.

While there were arguably better players available, Jenkins was a five-year starter in New Orleans. He helped the team win a Super Bowl in ’09 and was part of the No. 2 pass defense in the NFL last season. Signed to a three-year contract with $8.5 million guaranteed, it’s difficult to envision this being a complete backfire.

Perhaps most importantly, none of these moves prevent the Eagles from selecting a safety in the draft, not even in the first round. In fact, given the relatively short commitments to Allen and Jenkins, such an addition within the first two days of the draft is likely.

Wolff also looked as though he could be a potential starter during his rookie year. A fifth-round pick out of North Carolina State, he’s certainly still in the mix for a job, but there wasn’t enough tape that the team would feel comfortable going into this season with his name at the top of the depth chart.

A four-year veteran with zero career starts, Maragos appears to be here strictly for his special teams. However, he may have an opportunity to contribute more than he did coming from the Seattle Seahawks, where Pro Bowlers Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor were firmly entrenched as the starters.

It finally feels safe to say that we’re a long way from the days of desperately plugging in a Macho Harris, reaching for a Jaiquawn Jarrett, praying a Jarrad Page would take the right angle to the ball-carrier and wincing as a Patrick Chung took out his own teammates. By no means is the rebuild at safety complete, but at least it should be good enough to compete.

In 1st game post-Ersan Ilyasova, Dario Saric shines as Sixers' starting PF

In 1st game post-Ersan Ilyasova, Dario Saric shines as Sixers' starting PF

When Ersan Ilyasova was traded to the Hawks on Wednesday, it became Dario Saric's time to shine.

And shine he did in the Sixers' 120-112 win over the Wizards Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center. In the first game coming off the All-Star break, Saric got the starting nod at power forward. He certainly looked the part, posting 20 points (10 of 19 from the field), 11 rebounds and four assists.

Saric, now the only true four on the roster, was proud of his team's performance against one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

"We have a lot of veterans who can share the ball and that's how you're supposed to play," Saric said. "For me I'm not surprised if we [beat the third-best team] in the East, but I believe these guys can play very good basketball."

Saric was excellent in the starting role, but his exceptional play dates back before the All-Star break. Including Friday, he's averaged 20.5 points, eight rebounds and 2.5 assists over his last six games. The Sixers are 4-2 in that span.

Head coach Brett Brown is seeing what he expected to see from the Croatian rookie.

"He's a professional basketball player," Brown said. "He has been that for a while. His love of the game, his passion for the game is contagious. It's a thing that we loved maybe more than anything about him when we did the deal with Orlando, knowing however many years ago with the trade with Elfrid Payton and Saric. That was a calculated move."

Saric played almost 33 minutes Friday night. So what did Brown do to give Saric a breather? He sent out Robert Covington.

Covington has played the position most of his life but has spent his entire Sixers career on the wing. In a time of need, he stepped up for a team still adjusting to roster changes.

The 6-foot-8 Covington held his own against the likes of Philly native Markieff Morris. It didn't seem to faze his offensive game, either. Covington scored 25 points on 9 of 14 from the field (5 of 9 from three). He also added 11 rebounds and three assists.

Covington has also been a catalyst for the Sixers during their recent success. He's averaging 17.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.2 steals in his last six. He's also shot a ridiculous 46 percent from three (19 of 41) in that span.

"We can only control what we're able to control on the court," Covington said. "Everything outside of what they do in management doesn't include us. We can only focus on what we can control on the court, and that's what our main focus was on these last few days."

Saric continues to show that he was worth wait while Covington continues to prove that he's a keeper.

They've certainly had different paths. Saric was a lottery pick and regarded as one the top young players in Europe. Covington went undrafted out of Tennessee State and spent the 2013-14 primarily with the Rockets' D-League affiliate.

Bryan Colangelo has identified Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as the team's "transformational players." That's likely true, but every NBA team needs guys like Saric and Covington to complement their stars.

Covington is impressed with the progress of Saric in his rookie season.

"Dario's a very special player," Covington said. "He's able to do so much on the court. Tonight, you saw every aspect of his game. He'll guard, defending, rebounding and making plays on the offensive game. That's what Dario does. Now that he's going to play more in the starting lineup, it's really going to help him."

Saric may be the frontrunner to take home the Rookie of the Month for February. He's second only to Joel Embiid in double-doubles (seven) and 20-point games (six) among rookies. Whether it's Saric or Embiid, it appears the Rookie of the Year will be a Sixer.

His promotion to the starting lineup and wins against teams like the Wizards should only help Saric's cause.

"Maybe you see [me start consistently], maybe not," Saric said. "The game first time here I try to find myself. I got a couple rebounds, but still I try to find myself with the new role. I've tried to move around, catch the rhythm of the game, that's the most important thing in basketball."

He appeared to find himself just fine Friday night.

For Shayne Gostisbehere, Dave Hakstol, Stadium Series brings back cherished memories

For Shayne Gostisbehere, Dave Hakstol, Stadium Series brings back cherished memories

PITTSBURGH -- For Flyers coach Dave Hakstol and defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, tonight’s Stadium Series game between the Flyers and Penguins brings back memories.
 
Hakstol coached North Dakota in an outdoor hockey in college, while Gostisbehere participated in one as a freshman at Union College.
 
For Hakstol, however, this whole idea of outdoor hockey began when he was growing up in central Alberta in the small town of Drayton Valley.
 
“I think everybody’s got great memories of growing up outdoors,” Hakstol said. “We had a back creek that we could shovel off. I’m sure everybody could sit back and tell you stories of playing on the outdoor rinks.
 
“For me, most recently, I’ve got two kids growing up playing on outdoor rinks, backyard rinks. It’s pretty cool. It takes you right back to the heart of the game.”
 
Hakstol’s outdoor coaching experience came during a game between Nebraska-Omaha and his North Dakota squad in 2013 at the “Mutual of Omaha Battles on Ice.”
 
“I don’t know how to describe it,” Hakstol said of the event. “It’s just a different feel. It’s an ideal scenario.”
 
He said while tonight's game is special, it’s still about the points, first and foremost.
 
“You are cognizant of everything that surrounds the event and the game,” Hakstol said. “Yet for us, it’s two points. We’re fighting for every point here. That is going to paramount.”

Gostisbehere played at Fenway Park in 2012 for Union in a game against Harvard. That night, Union won, 2-0, to become the first ECAC club to ever win outdoors.
 
“I played at Fenway Park against Harvard and it was fun,” Gostisbehere said. “That was my freshman year and the only one I ever played in.
 
“Good crowd. It wasn’t packed obviously, but it was a night game. The ice was really good. It was really cold, too. It was pretty cool.”
 
As warm as it was Friday here -- a historic 78 degrees -- temperatures will begin in the 40s tonight at Heinz Field and then drop. It rained this morning but has since ceased.
 
“The biggest thing for me was to take a second, look around,” Gostisbehere said, admitting he failed to do that in college and won’t make that mistake again.
 
“Just cherish it a little bit. You are so focused on the game, it’s tough. That was biggest thing for me. It was such a blur. Just being in college and having the opportunity to play at Fenway Park was pretty awesome.”

This will the Flyers first-ever outdoor affair in Pittsburgh.
 
“It’s pretty exciting and I’m glad to be part of it,” Gostisbehere said.