Nate Allen didn’t know about the free-agent safety additions until he got the call from Chip Kelly.
“He was just saying, ‘It’s just, we need competition out here,’” said Allen.
But anyone who watched this team last year knows the situation is far more urgent than that.
Pro Football Focus has safety rankings from the 2012 season based on overall performance. Of the 88 safeties evaluated, Allen ranked 84th and Kurt Coleman 85th.The Eagles yielded a league-worst 33 touchdowns through the air. Opposing quarterbacks had an average rating of 99.6 against them. (Only Kansas City [99.9] was more generous.)
The Eagles understandably made safety a priority this offseason, adding Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung to the fold in free agency. Then they used a fifth-round pick on Earl Wolff in April’s draft.
So, where does it all stand now that we’re a few weeks into the offseason program?
The first thing that jumps out is that Phillips — a Super Bowl champ with the best pedigree of the bunch — is consistently running with the second team. The “they’re just easing him in because he is new” theory doesn’t really hold water. This is a brand new regime with a brand new defensive coordinator who brings a brand new scheme. It’s equally new to everybody. Secondly, Chung has been getting some first team looks, and he’s just as new as Phillips is.
It’s more likely that Phillips is being brought along slowly because of his injury history. The 26-year-old has had multiple knee issues over his five-year career.
“No. 1 is probably just health,” said Phillips, on what he has to prove to the coaching staff. “They know I can play. They wouldn’t have brought me here if they didn’t believe I can play. Basically, just health right now.
“[The knee] is definitely something I have to be conscious of — when I’m in the weight room, when I’m on the field, how many reps I take — but at the same time I’m going to get my work done; I’m never going to just tap out. I’m going to do what I have to do so Coach can see that I’m ready to work and that I’m a starter in this league.”
The Eagles really won’t know what they have in Phillips — or the rest of the safeties, for that matter — until the hitting starts.
As they ease Phillips in, Allen is getting a healthy amount of the first-team reps. He was paired with Chung last week, and ran with Coleman this past Monday when Chung was absent due to travel delays.
“Last year was obviously rough, and the year before was rough, but it’s all learning,” said Allen. “It helps you grow as a man and grow as a player, and it’s not going to do anything but make you better.
“Anytime they give you another chance to come out here and play, it’s always a good thing and a blessing.”
Kelly sounded high on the former second-round pick when asked about him a few weeks back.
Both Allen and Coleman suggested that the safety’s job will be easier this season in Billy Davis‘ scheme, which demands less of the unit in the run game.
“Not to say that the safeties aren’t going to be called on to make plays against the run, but we’re not going to be the first guys onto the scene,” said Coleman. “It’s going to be a big change for us, which is kind of good. It allows us to sit back and read the QB a little more, be more patient.”
“It gives you a little more freedom in certain things we do. Yeah, I’m excited about it,” added Allen.
This could be the most wide-open competition of the bunch. Allen and Coleman did nothing last season to secure a starting spot. Phillips has the health concerns. Chung is coming off a down season, and Wolff is a fifth-round rook.
“I think this is a great group of guys that are willing to work together as one,” said Coleman. “Maybe we don’t have a star, if that’s what you’re trying to get at, but I think we can become stars here in this program, in this scheme.”
The Eagles would probably settle for “steady.”
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