Eagles Wake-Up Call: Assessing the Safety Situation

Earl WolffHowie Roseman stood on the field at Ladd Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala. and was perfectly honest about the difficulties he’d had in finding players at one specific position.

“To me, that’s the hardest position to evaluate in college football is safeties,” Roseman said back in January at the Senior Bowl. “The guys that used to be the most explosive athletes and were playing in the back end, they’re going to play corner because they feel like maybe at corner, they can play 10 years. You look at the franchise tag numbers, the corner position is higher than the safety position. That is going to be the constant struggle. When you talk to people around the league, it’s hard to find safeties.”

Roseman wasn’t lying. And Sunday’s release of Kenny Phillips served as just another reminder of how this franchise has struggled to address the safety position since it lost Brian Dawkins back in 2009.

That year, Quintin Mikell, Macho Harris, Sean Jones and Quintin Demps all saw snaps. Mikell was easily the best of the group.

In 2010, it was Mikell, Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman, Colt Anderson and Jamar Adams.

2011? Coleman, Allen, Jarrad Page and Jaiquawn Jarrett.

And last year, Coleman, Allen, Anderson and David Sims.

Eleven guys in four seasons. None good enough to be penciled in to the starting lineup in 2013.

The position has changed, as teams expect versatility from their safeties. The athleticism and cover skills to match up with slot receivers. The size to take on tight ends, play the run and be an enforcer over the middle. The speed to play center field and serve as the last line of defense.

Teams around the league are having trouble finding suitable options, so it’s unlikely the Eagles find legitimate help when cuts are made in the next week. There’s been a little buzz about Bills safety Jairus Byrd, but it still seems unlikely that he gets dealt. Byrd is reportedly looking to become the highest-paid safety in the league.

On the current roster, it looks like Patrick Chung will start at one spot. Nate Allen is the favorite to run with Chung, but he’s entrenched firmly in “believe it when we see it” territory. Allen has shown little this summer to suggest he’s suddenly ready to make the leap.

Rookie Earl Wolff rotated in with Allen on Saturday, but might not be ready. If the coaches feel the competition is close, Wolff could get the nod. Or he could get a shot later in the season.

Chip Kelly has placed an emphasis on special teams, and Colt Anderson is the team’s best special-teams player. That should be enough to earn him a roster spot. Kurt Coleman isn’t a bad backup option, but he’s on the bubble. And David Sims is likely a longshot.

Another year where fans will likely watch on Sundays and hope for an offseason upgrade. There’s a good possibility that next January in Mobile, Roseman will be answering the same question once again.

WHAT YOU MISSED

The Eagles cut Phillips and Jamar Chaney yesterday.

The Birds also let 10 other players go.

The No-22 breakdown of what we saw from the offense vs. Jacksonville.

Good stuff from T-Mac on why the offense looked different.

Kelly said the Eagles were their own worst enemy Saturday.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Things do not look good for former Eagle Kevin Kolb:

 

Tommy Lawlor of IgglesBlitz.com offers some day-after thoughts on Michael Vick’s performance:

One of the areas where Vick made things worse is his desire for bigger chunks of yards. I re-watched the 1st quarter last night and there were several chances for him to check the ball down. Vick instead threw the ball to intermediate targets. There is no question that Vick was holding onto the ball longer last night. Maybe Vick wanted to put on a show after being named the starter. I don’t know. He needs to back to the previous games and play within himself and within the offense. Keep the ball moving and the chunk plays will come.

COMING UP

We’ll hear from Kelly and check out practice at the Linc.

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Tackling Woes For Eagles ‘D’ In Opener

The defense had two primary objectives heading into Friday’s game.

“We talked about coming in here that our effort to the ball was going to improve and our tackling was going to improve,” said defensive coordinator Billy Davis. “The effort to the ball was there and the tackling wasn’t where it needs to be yet.”

The tackling left plenty to be desired, as the the running back duo of  LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley romped for a combined 193 yards and three touchdowns on just 19 carries. That’s north of 10 yards per clip. Part of that has to do with players abandoning their gaps; part of it is growing pains as the team adjusts to a new scheme. But the poor tackling was a big factor as well.

Chip Kelly has not run a particularly physical training camp. And while there has been some occasional tackling to the ground during individual drills,  typically the players are asked to thud — or simulate tackling without bringing the ball carrier down.

Is it tough to just flip the switch?

“It’s a totally different mindset,” said Kurt Coleman. “We’ve gone wrap-up and it is what it is, it gives you good form but when you go live and it’s a totally different beast. And you saw guys — I remember Mychal [Kendricks] came down and smacked the running back [Blount] and kind of bounced off him, that’s the kind of stuff you can’t prepare for when you just thud it up.”

“It’s the first preseason game and this was really the first time we were actually live tackling, but there are no excuses for anything,” added Nate Allen, who had his share of struggles Friday. “We just have a lot to get better on.”

This is not a new issue for this defense. The Eagles missed a tackle on 8.5 percent of their plays in 2012, the highest mark in the league according to Football Outsiders.

It needs to be kept in mind that this was only the first exhibition game and drawing sweeping conclusions based off preseason play is never a good idea. But there is definitely a lot of work that lies ahead for this unit.

“That’s what the preseason is about — seeing who we are and where we are and how far we have to go,” said Davis. “And we’ve got a ways to go right now.”

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Eagles Training Camp Preview: Safeties

Nate AllenEach day this week, we’ll take a look at a different position group as we count down to training camp.

What’s changed?

Let’s go ahead and allow Kurt Coleman to explain it.

“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,” he said this spring. “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.”

During the 2011 and 2012 seasons, Eagles safeties had big-time run responsibilities. That not only led to struggles against opposing tailbacks, but disastrous results against play-action.

“Any time you ask the secondary to be primary B or A gap run defenders, you’re just asking for trouble on play-action and deep balls,” said Billy Davis. “I hate to talk too much about last season not being here, but just all the transition and all the different communications that happened, I don’t know how you fight through that and play good. I really don’t.”

From a personnel standpoint, the Eagles made additions, but just like with the cornerbacks, there’s no guarantee that the new guys will provide a significant upgrade.

The Birds signed Patrick Chung, who was benched by the Patriots last season. They also took a flier on Kenny Phillips, a talented player who has struggled through knee injuries. And they drafted Earl Wolff out of N.C. State in the fifth round.

Meanwhile, Coleman and Nate Allen return with hopes that they can produce better results in a different scheme. The Eagles also brought back special-teams ace Colt Anderson.

The pressing question: What are fair expectations for Phillips?

If the Eagles were getting a healthy Phillips, there would be legitimate reason for excitement. But the signs so far have not been promising. For starters, he signed for no guaranteed money. That means, in all likelihood, he didn’t receive a better offer elsewhere.

In the spring, he missed portions of OTAs because of his left knee, the one he had microfracture surgery on back in 2009.

The hope – for the Eagles, for Phillips and for the fans – is that he can get healthy enough to be a productive player, especially since he is only 26-years-old. But hope and expectations are two different things. And with the opener about seven weeks away, there’s no guarantee he’ll even be on the 53-man roster.

Don’t be surprised if…

Wolff competes for playing time as a rookie. Many seem to be writing off the N.C. State product as a backup in Year 1, but it’s not like the Eagles have Pro Bowlers ahead of him.

Wolff (5-11, 209) has the physical tools Chip Kelly covets, having run a 4.44 at the Combine. And he was a three-year starter in college. He will need to impress during training camp, but nothing is off the table. During the team’s final mini-camp, position coaches told him “everything’s open” when it comes to the safety position.

It’s possible that Wolff spends his first season as a backup/special-teams player. But there’s also a chance the other Eagles’ safeties falter and he gets a shot to contribute right away.

Roster battles to watch

This is probably the most wide-open position on the team. During the spring, Allen and Chung got the bulk of first-team reps, but others mixed in quite a bit.

As things stand now, barring injury, Chung seems like the safest bet to make the roster. Wolff should be on the final 53 too. And given the importance Kelly seems to place on special teams, I’d be surprised if Anderson didn’t make the cut.

That leaves one or two spots for Allen, Coleman and Phillips. Of that group, Allen is the most likely to stick. And the Coleman/Phillips decision, if there is one, could come down to Phillips’ health.

Like I said, there’s a lot still to be determined at safety in the coming weeks.

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Three Things We Learned About the Eagles’ Defense

We covered the offense earlier this week. Now it’s time for Billy Davis’ defense. Here are three things we learned this spring:

1. Disguise will be a buzz word to describe this unit.

Jason Kelce was asked last week to go over the sequence of how the offense sets the protection.

The first thing he said? “It’s all depending on whether it’s a three-down or a four-down defense.”

One of the trademarks of Davis’ defense will be pre-snap disguise. The idea is simple: Make it as difficult as possible for the opposing quarterback and offense to know where the pressure is coming from. We don’t know whether this will be a more of a traditional 3-4 or more of a 4-3 under, but that’s the reason we saw the Eagles going with three down linemen in most packages during OTAs and mini-camp.

“The guys that are standing up as ends, it doesn’t mean it’s a 3-4,” Davis said. “The stand-up is more confusion for the offense – is that guy dropping or rushing? When his hand’s down, most of the time, he’s probably [rushing]. And it affects protections and everything else.”

It was telling last month when Davis said he was always impressed with the way Jim Johnson was able to create the “illusion of pressure.”

That might mean having DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks stand up at the line of scrimmage in the A-gaps before dropping back. It might mean Connor Barwin dancing around the line of scrimmage in various spots before the ball is snapped. It might mean asking the middle linebacker to hustle back and act as the free safety on a specific play (something we saw once or twice at practice).

“There’s a lot more disguise, position swapping than there was in Houston,” Barwin said.

Added safety Earl Wolff: “Disguise and trick the quarterback, which allows us to make more plays on defense.”

There’s plenty to be worked schematically once the pads come on, but get ready to hear the word disguise quite a bit this summer during training camp.

2. Roles for Trent Cole and Brandon Graham are still to be determined.

Let’s start with Cole. In his ninth NFL season, the veteran is being asked to take on responsibilities that were previously foreign to him as he lines up at outside linebacker.

For most of the spring, Cole was at right outside linebacker with the first team – rushing the quarterback from a two-point stance, dropping back into coverage and setting the edge against the run. But he wasn’t used exclusively in that role. He also played defensive end in four-man fronts (primarily in nickel), and there were even times when he was one of the defensive linemen with his hand in the dirt in three-man fronts.

Cole has admitted that he played poorly last season, totaling a career-low three sacks while battling a hand/wrist injury. But it’s not like he’s a fossil. Cole won’t turn 31 until October, and from 2007 to 2011, he averaged 11 sacks a season. In other words, there’s a pretty strong track record there. He may never get back to being a double-digit sack guy, but he should still be able to be a productive player.

Graham, meanwhile, remains a mystery. He most often lined up at left outside linebacker with the second team behind Barwin this spring. That spot appears to be a bit of a “joker” with the player being asked to perform a variety of tasks and display some degree of versatility.

Is Graham suited for that kind of role? His best skill is quite clearly rushing the passer. Last year, no one else on the team matched his production in that area. But now, Graham’s being asked to learn a new position, and the spring offered few hints about what Davis has planned for him.

The bottom line here is that Davis has emphasized personnel being the key, and he has said he’ll play the best 11. But that can only be true to a point. For (an exaggerated) example, if your best 11 players are all defensive backs, well, there’s not much you can do to get them all on the field at the same time.

Hearing him talk, I got the sense that Davis learned in his previous two stops as a defensive coordinator (Arizona and San Francisco) that sometimes you just don’t have the players, and no scheme or coaching tweak can make up for that.

But Barwin, Graham and Cole are without question three of the best 11 defensive players on the roster. In the spring, it was rare to see them all on the field at the same time. We’ll find out if that changes this summer.

3. The linebackers and safeties are excited about the scheme change.

It was no secret that the Wide-9 made life difficult for pretty much everyone except for the defensive linemen. The safeties, for example, had specific run responsibilities that made it difficult for them to guard against play-action.

“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 Kurt 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.”

Added Davis: “Any time you ask the secondary to be primary B or A gap run defenders, you’re just asking for trouble on play-action and deep balls. I hate to talk too much about last season not being here, but just all the transition and all the different communications that happened, I don’t know how you fight through that and play good. I really don’t.”

But it’s not just the safeties. It’s the linebackers too. Against the run, the defensive linemen were often flying upfield while Ryans and Kendricks were left to deal with offensive linemen before attacking the ball-carrier.

“I’m definitely sideline to sideline, going to be able to run a little bit more, be a little more freed up,” Kendricks said.

“We had a lot of people in our face last year, so I mean if tackling was an issue, it shouldn’t be this year.”

There’s always a fine line between excuses and reasons. But it’s obvious that many of the Eagles’ defenders are embracing the scheme change with open arms.

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Eagles Depth Chart Outlook: Safeties

This is the first in a series. Throughout the next week or two, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Eagles’ roster. Today, we start with the safeties.

There was no big splash, but the Eagles made significant moves at safety this offseason with the hopes that a pair of high-quality starters will emerge.

In free agency, they signed ex-Patriots starter Patrick Chung and former Giants first-round pick Kenny Phillips.

Howie Roseman raved about this year’s safety class before the draft. The Eagles didn’t make a move for one of the big names in the early rounds, but they grabbed N.C. State’s Earl Wolff in the fifth.

Returning from last year’s roster are Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman, Colt Anderson and David Sims.

Here’s a complete look at the roster (alphabetical order):

 
Height
Weight
Age
Years/Starts
Nate Allen6-1210253/38
Colt Anderson5-10194273/6
Patrick Chung5-11210254/29
Kurt Coleman5-11195243/29
Kenny Phillips6-2217265/41
David Sims5-10210262/1
Earl Wolff5-11209230/0

Pencil ‘em in: Chung, Wolff, Anderson.

If I had to pick one safety from this group as the most likely starter, it would be Chung. He had a down 2012 season and was benched by Bill Belichick, but he has shown in the past that he’s a starting-caliber player. The Eagles signed him with the belief in that upside.

Wolff was a fifth-round pick and is the most athletic of the group. His 4.44 40 time is the second-fastest among safety prospects in the past three years, and Wolff was a three-year starter at N.C. State. I expect him to get a chance to compete for a starting job right away.

Safety is a tricky position. You can’t put someone back there who doesn’t know what he’s doing because mistakes turn into game-changing plays. So Wolff will have to prove himself worthy of playing time. But given the current makeup of the roster, he has a chance to be an immediate contributor.

Anderson, meanwhile, is the team’s best special teams player. Kelly has given strong indications that special teams will be a major consideration in determining roster spots. For those reasons, I feel comfortable penciling Anderson in.

Fighting for spots: Phillips, Allen, Coleman, Sims.

Phillips is an X-factor. If 100 percent healthy, he’s probably the best safety on the team. Actually, at 80 percent, he might be the best safety on the team. But remember, Phillips agreed to join the Eagles for no guaranteed money. That tells me he didn’t have a lot of other options. It’s hard to believe Phillips is only 26-years-old. His health and effectiveness will be a key storyline to monitor this offseason.

Allen and Coleman are fighting for jobs. It’s as simple as that. Allen is a former second-round pick, but at the end of last year, the coaching staff felt it was better served having Coleman and Anderson on the field instead of him. That is telling. Not all of Allen’s struggles are related to injuries, either. By all accounts, the 25-year-old is a hard worker and a good teammate, but he just hasn’t been productive. Nothing’s out of the question with Allen. He could be starting in Week 1. Or he could be out of a job.

As for Coleman, he’s an option to fill out the roster as a backup. The fourth-year pro doesn’t seem to have the measurables Kelly is looking for. On the flip side, Nnamdi Asomugha is no longer around to blame Coleman for every big play. He has an outside shot of winning a starting job, but Coleman’s best chance at sticking is probably as a reserve/special-teams player.

Sims making the roster would be an upset, barring injuries to the guys ahead of him.

Bottom line? Phillips, Allen and Coleman are likely fighting for one or two spots, depending on whether Chip Kelly keeps four or five safeties.

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The Eagles’ Safety Options In Free Agency

Howie Roseman offered an honest assessment earlier this offseason when asked about the Eagles’ struggles in identifying talent at the safety position.

“To me, that’s the hardest position to evaluate in college football is safeties,” Roseman said. “The guys that used to be the most explosive athletes and were playing in the back end, they’re going to play corner because they feel like maybe at corner, they can play 10 years. You look at the franchise tag numbers, the corner position is higher than the safety position. That is going to be the constant struggle. When you talk to people around the league, it’s hard to find safeties.”

The Eagles have tried and failed to fill the void left by Brian Dawkins for four seasons, bringing in guys like Nate Allen, Jaiquawn Jarrett and Jarrad Page, to name a few. Now they face another offseason looking for safety help.

The truth is, the position is changing. Teams are now looking for hybrid-type players who can line up opposite tight ends and slot receivers, play centerfield when necessary and also sneak down in the box to play the run (or the read option).

Take a glance at “offseason needs” articles around the league, and you’re going to see plenty of teams in the market for safety help.

For the Eagles, the search continues next week with the start of the free agency period (March 12). Currently on the roster are Allen, Kurt Coleman and David Sims. Allen, a second-round pick in 2010, has been a disappointment. Counting on him to take some kind of leap into a quality starter would be a mistake. The plan should be to keep him in the mix and see if he surprises.

Coleman has been given several opportunities to seize a starting job, but he is physically limited and would be better utilized in a backup role. And Sims has one career start under his belt. Colt Anderson, meanwhile, is a restricted free agent. He’s an elite special teams player, but not the answer to the team’s safety woes.

The good news is that the Eagles will have options to fill their needs in free agency and the draft. This year’s group of safety prospects is considered deep and talented. But as we’ve seen in years past, going into the draft searching for specific needs can lead to mistakes.

And this is not an either/or situation. The Eagles should look to identify young safety talent in free agency and address the position if possible in the draft. As we wrote about on Sunday, the Birds are in good cap shape and could be in position to take advantage of a market where the supply might very well out-weigh the demand.

NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal has a list out of the top 85 free agents, and it contains eight safeties (not including Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd, who was franchised). Below is a breakdown.

 
Age
Ht.
Wt.
Games Started
Dashon Goldson, SF286-220064
William Moore, ATL276-022138
Ed Reed, BAL345-11205159
Glover Quin, HOU276-020760
Kenny Phillips, NYG266-221741
LaRon Landry, NYJ286-022079
Louis Delmas, DET255-1120249
Charles Woodson, GB366-1202203

Dashon Goldson – He’s the guy readers seem to be asking about the most, and it’s easy to understand why. Goldson has made the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons, is durable (has made 62 of a possible 64 starts the past four seasons) and is a versatile play-maker (nine interceptions, two forced fumbles the past two seasons).

He’ll turn 29 in September. That’s not exactly old, but teams will have to determine how many more years of top-level production Goldson has in him. That’s where the Eagles should have an advantage with Tom Gamble, who spent seven years in the 49ers’ front office.

Given the league-wide need at safety, the market for Goldson should be competitive, and he could be in line for a big pay-day. One NFL team official told Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that Goldson is looking for $8 million per season. The 49ers have until 4 p.m. today to use the franchise tag on Goldson for the second consecutive year, but according to multiple reports, they’re not going to go that route.

William Moore – He’s been a three-year starter for the Falcons and has 11 interceptions to go along with five forced fumbles the past three seasons. Moore ran a 4.51 at the Combine back in 2009. As a point of reference, only three safeties this year had a faster time.

The issue with Moore has been health. He’s missed eight games the past two seasons – four in 2012 because of a hamstring injury. The Falcons could still choose to tag him. Atlanta also recently cut ties with several veterans and could look to lock up Moore to a long-term deal.

Ed Reed – Given his age and the state of the Eagles, I don’t see this as a fit for either side.

Charles Woodson – Ditto.

Glover Quin – Like Moore, he could still get the tag. A four-year starter, he hasn’t missed a game since 2009 (his rookie season). Quin made the switch from cornerback to safety before the 2011 season, so there’s reason to believe he still has plenty of room for improvement at his new position. Given the way the league is trending, the ability to cover is at the top of the list of requirements for safeties, which makes Quin’s background intriguing. The Battle Red Blog published a good post about Quin’s versatility too, pointing to his 10-tackle performance against the Vikings in which Adrian Peterson averaged just 3.4 yards per carry.

Kenny Phillips – Eagles fans are familiar with Phillips, a first-round pick by the Giants in 2008. Age and production are non-issues with Phillips. The key is his health. He battled an MCL injury last season and only played in seven games. If healthy, he figures to have great upside, but that appears to be a serious if at this point.

LaRon Landry – Coming off an Achilles’ injury in 2011, Landry got a one-year “prove it” deal from the Jets. After playing in just 17 games his final two years with the Redskins, Landry played in all 16 in 2012 and made his first Pro Bowl, coming up with a pair of interceptions and four forced fumbles. Considering he’s 28 and coming off his first 16-game season since 2008, Landry could be looking to cash in.

Louis Delmas - Speaking of “prove it” deals, that’s what Delmas might have to settle for. If health wasn’t a concern, the Lions would almost definitely lock Delmas up to a long-term deal. The former second-round pick (2009) turns 26 in April and is productive when on the field, but knee injuries have been an issue. Delmas has missed 13 of 32 games the last two seasons. Interested teams will have to do their due diligence on him medically, and while the upside is intriguing, counting on Delmas as a starting safety would carry quite a bit of risk.

***

A few other names on the market:

Patrick Chung (Patriots) – His specialty is playing the run, but Chung has been unable to stay healthy, having missed 12 games the past two seasons.

Chris Clemons (Dolphins) – The 27-year-old started 16 games for Miami last year. At 6-0, 208 pounds, he ran a 4.41 coming out of Clemson in 2009 and was drafted in the fifth round.

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Once Again, Eagles Look To Draft For Safety Help

It seems to be a story we write pretty much every offseason around these parts: The Eagles are looking for safety help.

They’ve tried and failed in previous years to fill the gaping hole in the back end of the defense. Guys like Kurt Coleman, Nate Allen, Colt Anderson, David Sims, Jarrad Page and Jaiquawn Jarrett have all gotten a chance to start since the beginning of the 2011 season. But none have produced at a level that would suggest they should be penciled in as a starter going forward.

And so, Howie Roseman will try once again this offseason to find safety help in the draft and/or free agency.

“To me, that’s the hardest position to evaluate in college football is safeties,” Roseman said last week at the Senior Bowl. “The guys that used to be the most explosive athletes and were playing in the back end, they’re going to play corner because they feel like maybe at corner, they can play 10 years. You look at the franchise tag numbers, the corner position is higher than the safety position. That is going to be the constant struggle. When you talk to people around the league, it’s hard to find safeties.”

Part of the reason why is the position is changing. Teams need safeties who can cover. That might mean matching up with tight ends or providing double-team help over the top. And with more offenses incorporating the read option, safeties are expected to be sound tacklers near the line of scrimmage as well.

The good news for the Eagles is that this appears to be a pretty good group of college prospects.

“There will be more on the draft board this year than probably in the last two years,” Roseman said.

Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro (6-1, 218) seems to be the consensus top option on the board, although he did not participate in the Senior Bowl. Many analysts expect him to be a first-round pick.

But there’s depth at safety too. Here are some other names to know:

Baccari Rambo (6-0, 215), Georgia – He missed time last season for violating team rules (mistakenly eating pot Brownies?), but was a first-team All-American and first-team All-SEC selection as a junior. Asked what he needs to improve, Rambo said, “I just feel like I’ve got to work on my open field and taking better angles on tackling.”

His strength?

“My ball skills, my instincts. I have a pretty good knack for going and getting the ball when I’m in zone coverage.”

Phillip Thomas (6-1, 210), Fresno State – He led the nation with eight interceptions, taking three back to the house. And Thomas showed he can play up at the line of scrimmage too, finishing with 12 tackles for loss (four sacks), third among all defensive backs.

“I feel like my strength is getting to the ball no matter what, if it’s in the air or on the ground,” Thomas said. “Just getting the ball and creating turnovers. Film study, that’s the biggest thing to me. It helps you play a lot faster.”

As for an area of improvement?

“Open-field tackling,” Thomas said. “Just getting to the ball-carrier in open space and being able to take that extra step instead of lunging out after him. Just securing the tackle.”

NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said during the Senior Bowl broadcast that he heard Thomas could be a second- or third-round pick.

T.J. McDonald (6-2, 211), USC – Mayock suggested last week that McDonald needs to get better be in coverage.

“I know I’m a physical player in the box,” McDonald said. “I love to play in the box and stick my nose in there, but also like to play deep and get my hands on the ball.”

McDonald, one of the biggest safeties in the group, is the son of former NFL player Tim McDonald.

Matt Elam (5-10, 206), Florida – ESPN’s Mel Kiper has Elam as his second-best safety behind Vaccaro. According to NFL.com, he played a lot in the box, but was also asked to cover opposing slot receivers. Their NFL comp for Elam is former Eagles Quintin Mikell.

J.J. Wilcox (5-11, 214), Georgia Southern – He didn’t play in a BCS conference, but Wilcox’s stock appears to be rising. Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com named him one of the winners at the Senior Bowl and Dan Pompei of the National Football Post has Wilcox ranked as the No. 2 safety on the board, projecting a second-round selection.

Jonathan Cyprien (6-0, 209), Florida International – Another small-school prospect who had a good Senior Bowl.

“I think his instinctivness and his reactions, an ability to just want to go to the ball. It’s almost kind of a natural thing for him,” Senior Bowl executive director and former NFL scout Phil Savage said, per AL.com. “And if he can run fast enough at the Combine for people to say, ‘Hey, his instincts will overcome any deficiency in speed that he might have.’ There are some scouts now, after this week, who already say he can run. That’s one of the final blanks he’ll have to fill in, but overall he’s been terrific here this week.”

Mayock suggested Cyprien could be a second- or third-round pick.

A couple other names to know: Oklahoma’s Tony Jefferson and LSU’s Eric Reid are currently third and fourth in Kiper’s safety rankings.

As for the Eagles, they didn’t pick a safety last year, but spent second-round selections on Jaiquawn Jarrett and Nate Allen in the previous two drafts (along with a seventh-rounder on Kurt Coleman in 2010). Even if they address safety in free agency, don’t be surprised to see them pick another one in April’s draft.

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Allen Demotion Another Hurdle For ’10 Draft Class

The top of the Eagles’ 2010 draft has been a popular topic of conversation here in Philadelphia, and not for the purposes of throwing verbal bouquets at the parties in question.

Brandon Graham, the choice over Jason Pierre-Paul and Earl Thomas.

Nate Allen, the Donovan McNabb pick and successor to Brian Dawkins that just doesn’t have those Dawkins’ qualities. (Few do.)

Both have spent time recovering from serious knee injuries and both have spent time down on the mat. Graham’s struggles have been highlighted more given that he was the 13th overall pick and it’s so easy to contrast the start of his career with that of Pierre-Paul’s. Beat up and labeled a bust, Graham looks like he has turned the corner and his stock has rebounded.

Allen’s, meanwhile, has taken a hit, as Andy Reid announced on Wednesday that Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson would be the starting safeties against the Redskins this week.

“I feel for him,” said Graham. “I talk to him before every game and tell him, ‘Hey, we’re the 2010 first and second picks. ‘ I know everything hasn’t been going his way and I know everything hasn’t been going my way, but I try to keep him up as much as I can. You can ask him, I always say, ‘Nate. You’ve got to get you one. You’ve got to get you one, man. Don’t worry about nothing else.

“I know that he tries hard and I know that it sucks that the production is not there like he wants it to be, but Nate’s a great player and he has to make sure that he doesn’t get frustrated because we’re still young and things can still happen.”

Allen was pretty strong out of the gates, recording three interceptions in his first four games as a rookie. But that was it for the rest of the season. The South Florida product ruptured the patellar tendon in his right knee in late December against the Giants while attempting to tackle Mario Manningham, and had a down 2011 season as he fought to regain strength and confidence.

You can argue that the confidence still has not fully rebounded. Allen has been shaky this season and, at least for this week, will be out of the starting lineup in favor of Anderson and Coleman, who was drafted in the seventh round of that ’10 draft.

Reid’s explanation?

“It was just, ‘Colt’s been playing well and that’s just the best fit for right now,'” said Allen.

“You’ve got to be a professional about it and continue to work and contribute and help the team however you can.”

Allen has been nothing if not professional since being selected 37th overall by  the Eagles. One of the criticisms coming out of college, though, was that he was not a great or violent tackler, and he has not been able to shed that label at this level. Reid indicated that Allen’s demotion has to do with that aspect of the game.

“Right now Kurt is a little more stout in there and we need that this week,” said Reid, who added that Allen will likely be working in on Sunday.

Bigger picture, the Eagles are about to go through some serious changes come the end of the regular season. There will be roster turnover along with the likely coaching changes, and the secondary will be seriously looked at by the powers that be. It might not be the best time, in other words, to be getting demoted. But Allen seems to be taking it in stride.

“That’s the game of football. There’s going to be ups and downs,” said Allen, “you just have to respond.”

Graham believes he will.

“I think that he is going to go out there whenever he gets his shot again and try to make the best of it. Sometimes it takes a person to lose his job to try and regain it, and I think he’ll handle it well.”

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Making Sense Of the Eagles’ Inactives

The following Eagles are inactives for tonight’s matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals: Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy, Brent Celek, Kurt Coleman, Greg Salas, Chris Polk, Matt Kopa.

Vick (concussion) misses his fifth straight, but he has been cleared by an independent neurologist, opening up the chance that he could be active for the final two games. McCoy is out for the fourth straight game with a concussion. Eagles head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder said Tuesday that McCoy was in the final stage of the team’s five-step rehab process.

Nick Foles went 32-for-51 for 381 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Eagles’ win against Tampa. This will be the rookie’s fifth straight start.

Coleman suffered a sternal contusion against the Bucs. Colt Anderson will start for the second consecutive game alongside Nate Allen.

Celek suffered a concussion on the first play of the game vs. the Bucs. Clay Harbor will take his place. Harbor caught all six balls thrown his way last week. The Eagles also added Emil Igwenagu to the 53-man roster earlier this week.

And Bryce Brown will get the start once again for McCoy. Brown averaged 8.1 yards per carry in his first two starts, but was shut down last week (6 yards on 12 carries). Dion Lewis will also see the field.

The Eagles have three backup offensive linemen active – Danny Watkins, Demetress Bell and Matt Tennant.

Join us for a live chat during tonight’s game. Kickoff is set for 8:20 p.m.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.
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Injury Update: McCoy, Vick Not Ruled Out Yet

LeSean McCoy and Michael Vick are in Phase 5 of the rehab process from concussions suffered last month and returned to practice in a limited capacity today.

“We’re not listing them as out,” said head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder. “They’re still very much alive for things. We’ll see how they do today and take it day by day. Of course, they have to get through this fifth phase, they have to get to the independent [neurologist], which could be tomorrow, and they have to see [team doctor] Dr. [Gary] Dorshimer and get his clearance as well.”

Meanwhile, tight end Brent Celek has been ruled out for Thursday night’s game against the Bengals. Celek suffered his concussion on the first play of the game against the Bucs. He was unconscious for a couple seconds, Burkholder said, but has already passed his ImPACT Test and should move on to Phase 2 tomorrow.

Nnamdi Asomugha (neck stinger/quad contusion) will practice today, Andy Reid said. Kurt Coleman has a sternal contusion. He’ll be limited today and likely won’t play Thursday night.  Colt Anderson figures to start in his place. Jeremy Maclin has a groin strain and will be limited in practice, but should play. Mike Patterson is home from the hospital after battling pneumonia, but he won’t play.

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