Counting Down the Eagles’ Needs: No. 1, Safety

Counting Down the Eagles’ Needs: No. 1, Safety
March 11, 2014, 1:54 pm
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Free agency is here, and the draft is right around the corner. With the Philadelphia Eagles’ offseason in full swing, we’re examining where the roster stands at each position, counting down based on team need. Check out the previous installments on the linebackers, cornerbacks, defensive line, specialists, wide receivers, offensive line, quarterbacks, tight ends and  running backs.

Was there ever any doubt as to what the Eagles’ greatest need was in this offseason? Let’s break it down.

There are only three safeties currently on the roster for 2014—NFL teams usually carry four or five. Among those, only Earl Wolff’s spot is safe. A fifth-round pick in ’13, Wolff was competent while appearing in 11 games, starting six. It’s too soon to hand him a starting job, but not impossible to foresee him growing into one.

That leaves Patrick Chung, who was flat-out awful last season, and Keelan Johnson, who spent most of ’13 either inactive or on the practice squad. Both players are a long shot to survive to final cuts, if that far.

With that in mind, Philadelphia needs reinforcements in the worst way, and they can’t wait for the draft (although they should probably think about grabbing one or two there as well). A veteran safety is a must to solidify the back end of the secondary for the season ahead.

We’ve all heard reports of the Eagles dabbling in the safety market during the league’s “legal tampering” window. With free agency finally set to open though, here are my top 10 safeties entering the market. Who ya got?

1. Jairus Byrd

Good news for Philadelphia is teams are reportedly timid about paying Byrd the $9 million per year that’s been floated. If the Eagles have interest in the three-time All-Pro and consensus best safety available, they could swoop in with a competitive figure in a soft market.

Byrd, 27, is one of the premier cover safeties in the NFL and has posted elite production for the position, recording 22 interceptions over five seasons with the Buffalo Bills. If the Eagles can get him at their price, there’s a chance a deal gets done.

2. T.J. Ward

Ward, 27, was invited to his first Pro Bowl in 2013. He does his best work in the box, but is solid in coverage as well. Not a huge playmaker though with 3.5 sacks, five interceptions and five forced fumbles in four seasons with the Cleveland Browns.

I’m not as high on Ward for the Eagles as many in this fanbase. Based on comments by head coach Chip Kelly and the problem the organization is trying to solve—the worst pass defense in the NFL—it seems somebody who specializes in coverage would be a better fit.

3. Donte Whitner

It’s a little surprising all three top free-agent safeties actually reached the market without a new contract or the franchise tag. I think that probably says a lot about how the rest of the league is valuing these players.

Although he does everything well, Whitner will turn 29 before the season begins, and with eight years in the league—the last three with the San Francisco 49ers—he already has put quite a bit of wear and tear on his body. No doubt, he could help the Eagles, but it would be surprising to see this regime make a splash like that with an older free agent.

4. Malcolm Jenkins

Perhaps the best overall fit for the Eagles. Jenkins, 26, has ideal size at 6’0”, 204 pounds. He’s a converted cornerback, so he should be comfortable in man-to-man coverage. Best of all, he comes with the mid-tier price tag the organization is thought to be looking for.

Jenkins had an up-and-down career with the New Orleans Saints, although they have fielded some pretty terrible defenses over the years. Starting 14 games for the league’s No. 2 pass defense in ’13, Jenkins posted 2.5 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.

5. Chris Clemons

Underrated and overlooked option out of the Miami Dolphins organization. Clemons isn’t great at stopping the run or in coverage, but he’s solid at both. At 6’1”, 214 pounds, he also has above average size for the position.

Clemons will turn 29 in December, but only has five years in the league. Plus, he isn’t likely to require a huge contract to sign. Very underwhelming as a playmaker with just 1.5 sacks, four interceptions and two forced fumbles for his entire career, but won’t hurt you.

6. Antoine Bethea

The solid player to end all solid players, Bethea is neither huge (5’11”, 206 pounds) nor a tremendous playmaker, lodging 3.5 sacks, 14 interceptions and five forced fumbles in eight seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. He is active though, finishing with over 100 tackles in five of the last six seasons.

The downside to Bethea is he’s about to turn 30, so he’s strictly a short-term solution. The Eagles could do worse, but it’s not going to bring much stability to the secondary beyond next season.

7. Nate Allen

I truly believed Nate Allen was going to be much further down my list of preferred candidates. The more you study this class though, the more you realize there aren’t that many definitive upgrades, meaning players who are definitely better options for the Eagles.

Allen, 26, got off to a bumpy start last year, but grew comfortable in the new scheme as the season went along. Anecdotally, I don’t recall many times he was burned down the field over the second half of the season, and he became a reliable tackler as well. He didn’t make many impact plays—1.0 sack, one pick, one forced fumble—but he wasn’t killing the Birds back there.

If 2013 was Allen’s ceiling, he’s not a long-term option. However, he might be the lesser of two evils. At least we know what we’re getting in his case, which is more than you can say for some prospective.

8. Mike Mitchell

I wanted to like Mike Mitchell when I first began studying free agents. He’ll be 27, has good size (6’0”, 210 lbs) and even better athleticism, running a 4.39 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day in ’09. After four miserable years in Oakland, he finally blew up for the Carolina Panthers last season with 3.5 sacks, four interceptions and two forced fumbles.

Of course, he did that playing behind the most fearsome pass-rush in the NFL. Carolina ran away with the NFL lead in sacks. Do those numbers translate to success in Philadelphia? Plus, Mitchell is a miserable tackler—least efficient safety in the league in ’13 according to Pro Football Focus.

I would be worried Mitchell is a one-hit wonder who thrived in a specific scheme.

9. Major Wright

Wright is coming off of a poor season for the Chicago Bears, but he’s performed much better in the past. He only turns 26 this summer, so there’s a chance he will rebound with a change of scenery.

Wright recorded nine interceptions and three forced fumbles in as a three-year starter, and last season posted 100 tackles for the first time. There are more proven options to be sure, but wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the Birds took a chance on this guy.

10. Taylor Mays

I’m just gonna put Mays here because there’s no other safety I’d really consider for a starting job. However, the Birds need depth as sell, and Mays could be perfect.

Mays still carries around the “bust” label due to the fact that the 49ers obviously reached for him in 2010, but he’s actually made a nice little career for himself with the Cincinnati Bengals the three years. He’s an effective situational in-the-box safety capable of making spot starts and contributes on special teams. Great size (6’3”, 220 lbs) and athleticism, and only 26. Would love Mays as a backup.

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