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.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.
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