Safety by Numbers: Have the Eagles Learned Their Lesson at Free Safety?
Quintin Mikell was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career in 2009. It kind of reminded me of when Martin Scorsese won the Oscar for The Departed. It was a good effort, but you just felt like the Academy was compensating for the fact that they had snubbed him for his greater accomplishments in the past.
Mikell is a very talented player. At times, he struggled in coverage and I’m sure there were moments when his side of the defense was challenged by the image of Asante Samuel making vain attempts at tackling.
This wasn’t Mikell’s year, but he should feel pretty secure at his position. The Eagles won’t be replacing him anytime soon.
The defensive secondary has usually been the Eagles strong-suit. What seemed to really shock the Eagles this year was how integral an element Brian Dawkins had been in his tenure here. Apparently, it’s easy to take a seven-time pro-bowler for granted. (A fact that may be unsettling to Donovan McNabb).
I guess the Eagles thought the talented trio of Sheldon Brown, Asante Samuel, and Quintin Mikell should be able to cover for the disabilities of anyone the Eagles plug into the fourth defensive back slot. It took them the better part of the season to learn that Quintin Demps, Macho Harris, and Sean Jones were more inept than they could have imagined.
Actually, that might not be fair to Harris, who is said to be adding muscle mass in preparation for next season. There is the possibility that, regardless of whether the Eagles address the free safety position, Harris will return as the starter for the second year in a row. It’s fair to give him an opportunity to improve on his rookie year. After all, the Eagles had enough faith to hand him the starting role at the beginning of 2009 before supplanting him with Sean Jones.
Jones recorded 61 tackles and two interceptions, but is not expected to return to Philadelphia for 2010 and could land a sizable contract as one of the few unrestricted free agents in this year’s weak crop. The future of the position remains a question mark.
Let’s review some of the ways the Eagles could fill the hole at free safety.
With Jones as one of the best prospects at the safety position, it’s pretty safe to say that the Eagles won’t be addressing the position through free agency. Oakland’s Hiram Eugene is probably the only other starting safety who could be switching teams in the coming weeks. Hiram often played center-field in Oakland, but the Raiders also brought him off the field on passing downs. That likely means the Raiders didn’t trust him to run with receivers when they sent in the blitz.
Tennessee’s Eric Berry is one of the better safety prospects to come out in recent years. Most mocks have him projected to go in the top five, but some have him slipping to Cleveland at No. 7 overall.
The only way that I envision the Eagles having a shot at Berry is if they manage to trade McNabb to Cleveland, and that’s a tall order, in my opinion. Of course, with former Eagles GM Tom Heckert and West Coast Offense enthusiast Mike Holmgren holding so much sway in their front office, a big trade with Cleveland isn’t entirely outside of the realm of possibility.
USC’s Taylor Mays and Longhorn Earl Thomas round out what many believe is the only first-round talent at the safety position. Mays had an outstanding junior year and would have been the top safety prospect had he not returned for his senior year at USC. He struggled at times, but a lot of analysts believe his failure to meet expectations hurt him more than his performance on the field.
Mays stands at 6′3″, 230 pounds and has 4.45 speed. His skill-set is outstanding and teams might be seduced by it. Those teams might not be wrong. If they can work Mays into a pro discipline, he could be a steal in the second half of the first round. And if he drops as far as No. 24, I do expect the Eagles to pull the trigger on him.
The Longhorns have consistently produced talented professional defensive backs over the years, so Earl Thomas comes with an intriguing pedigree. A sure-footed player who can cover ground quickly, Thomas looks to excel as a center-field prospect who can diagnose a play quickly and will always end up around the ball. He looks lighter than his 197 pounds might indicate, and that concerns me as a target for the undersized Eagles. But he has been a very good tackler, and that should appeal to them above everything else.
With the Eagles ready to move Michael Vick and possibly Donovan McNabb, I’m curious about their ability to talk their way into acquiring a veteran safety in the deal. It just so happens that the Rams, Raiders, and Jaguars may be open to the idea of trading their defensive backs for a quarterback. Some names that have been mentioned are St. Louis’ O.J. Atogwe, Jacksonville’s Reggie Nelson and Oakland’s Michael Huff.
Huff is another former Texas Longhorn, and is of particular interest to me. The top- rated safety prospect in 2006, Huff was taken seventh overall in the draft. After two reasonably successful seasons, he was relegated to back-up in 2008. With so much coaching chaos in Oakland, it’s not hard to imagine that Lane Kiffen and Tom Cable never really found the way to maximize his potential.
Huff came on the field on passing downs to relieve Hiram Eugene in blitz packages, so they obviously had faith in his man coverage. He pulled down three interceptions in limited action last year and could just need to find the right team for his talents.
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