This is the first in a four part series counting down the Eagles' biggest personnel needs, and how they realistically can be addressed this offseason. Share your thoughts on prospects, free agents, or other moves in the comments.
Hard to believe a unit with three Pro Bowl caliber players can be considered a serious area of concern, but the Eagles are in a pickle, and they're going to be in a pickle until they find at least a reasonably talented free safety.
Replacing Brian Dawkins remains priority one in the secondary. Safety doesn't necessarily need to be an impact position, but the trio of Demps, Harris, and Jones was a total catastrophe. Too many blown assignments, missed tackles, and stupid penalties, not to mention generally feeble run support. As a result, the play of the entire unit suffered, particularly Quintin Mikell.
The popular choice to fill the void seems to be Taylor Mays, the 6-3, 230 pound safety from Southern Cal. Experts believe he would have been a top ten selection had he declared for the draft last year, but his stock has fallen and he may be available when the Eagles are on the clock. He's expected to run a 40 time around 4.4, but concerns over his ability in coverage are pushing him down the board.
Which doesn't necessarily make him a bad fit for Philadelphia. Dawkins has been largely ineffective in man-to-man for years, but Jim Johnson schemed to his many strengths. He could be a blitzer or extra man in the box, but also play the part of All Star center fielder. Mays could satisfy a similar role in McDermott's defense, which is undoubtedly why he is such a favorite. It would be difficult to pass on this safety at number 24.
There are some persons of interest in the free agent market as well. Unfortunately they all have restricted negotiating rights, and most will be retained by their current clubs. The lone exception might be O.J. Atogwe. The Rams were unable to reach a long term extension with Atogwe last year, forcing the team to slap him with the franchise tag. If the two sides are unable to agree on terms, Atogwe will earn close to $7 million on a one year tender. At 29-years-old, and coming off a dislocated shoulder that ended his season, St. Louis could be willing to part ways without a deal in place.
Then again, it might not make sense for the Eagles to seek a trade for precisely those very reasons. It's still possible Atogwe re-signs anyway. Some lesser known players could be a realistic direction, though their respective clubs are likely to hang on to their services at discount prices. The Birds will almost certainly have to look to the draft for a fix.
There is one more possible solution, unlikely as it is, and that is converting Sheldon Brown to safety. For one thing, Sheldon just completed perhaps the best season of his NFL career at corner, even with a bum hamstring down the stretch. Taking on a new position also gives him one more reason to gripe about his contract. Finally, it may fill one one hole, but simultaneously creates another. The Eagles would be left scrambling to find another corner.
Which shouldn't imply cornerback isn't already a need too. Sheldon will be 31. Samuel recently turned 29. Joselio Hanson is too small to be an every down player, and Ellis Hobbs' suffered a neck injury. The Eagles are serious about replenishing their depth at this spot, so you can bet on some type of addition to this group.
It does not appear to be a situation they can upgrade in free agency either. The best players will wind up staying put. Further complicating the matter, there's not a ton of a first round talent in the draft. After Florida's Joe Haden, a probable top ten pick, it's unclear who even checks in as the number two prospect. Boise State's Kyle Wilson is drawing rave reviews for his performance at the Senior Bowl, and may have leapt ahead of the pack and into round one.
Assuming Sheldon stays put, corner is not the immediate need safety is. The Eagles can go into next season with Brown, Samuel, and Hanson, and they'll be fine as long as they're healthy. However if they go it with any combination of Demps, Harris, and Jones, they'll continue to get inconsistent results.
And even though it's not the most critical chink in the armor, it may prove the toughest to remedy. Mays seems Taylor-made for their defense, if you'll excuse the bad pun, but the talk about his freefall may be exaggerated, and he could be long gone before the Eagles draft. Veteran movement will be severely hampered by the new rules of free agency, which makes prying a quality player like Atogwe away from their club a challenge.
If neither of those come to pass, we're potentially looking at either a massive overhaul of the secondary, or the unattractive decision to stick with what they have now, plus maybe another random veteran to compete. There doesn't need to be a star back there, but if they don't find a suitable replacement at free safety, the secondary will continue to leak.