Eagles Training Camp Preview: Safeties
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - Top-heavy is probably the best way to describe the Eagles situation at safety where veterans Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod no longer have Corey Graham as an insurance policy behind them, at least for the moment.
Graham, who will turn 33 on July 25, the day the Eagles' report to training camp, remains a free agent and has indicated he would like to continue playing in 2018. He played a key role on a Super Bowl-winning team and was back in Philadelphia in June but not to sign a new deal. Graham, like the rest of the 2017-18 club, was at the 2300 Arena to pick up some bling, in Graham's case his second Super Bowl ring.
On his way to the party, The Athletic's Bo Wulf caught up with the veteran on the red carpet who confirmed that his personal plan is not to go out on top and hang up the cleats.
“Oh yeah, I’ll play at some point if I’m feeling good, obviously I’ll go out there,” Graham said. “But when the time comes, we’ll sit down and talk and decide what we’re going to do.”
It seems like a no-brainer for the Eagles to want a guy who makes Jim Schwartz sleep soundly at night, something safety coach Tim Hauck explained earlier this offseason.
“It was a blessing to have Corey back there," Hauck, a long-time NFL safety himself, admitted. "Having a veteran who doesn’t need a lot of reps and has seen all of the situations and all of the pressure to just step on the field is a comfort level for us."
There are other issues to take into account, however, including a different position.
Remember one of the major reasons Graham played so much last season -- 36 percent of the defensive snaps in the regular season which increased to 60 percent in the playoffs (spiking at 84 percent in the Super Bowl) -- was the injury to Jordan Hicks, one of the Eagles' two three-down linebackers.
While Mychal Kendricks performed admirably after Hicks' Achilles' injury Schwartz also went to a more piecemeal approach with different looks that at times had the versatile Jenkins playing nickel LB.
If Hicks and Nigel Bradham (who is suspended for Week 1) are healthy in 2018 they will be on the field for all the defensive snaps and there will be less of a need for all the moving parts, including Jenkins in a rover role. Under that scenario, the third safety would only come into play when the Eagles are in their "Big Nickel" package with Jenkins playing the slot corner.
Even that's more complicated, though, because without Patrick Robinson the need for Jenkins to play in the slot more is very plausible.
“Developing the third safety is essential," Hauck explained. "The guy is going to play, it’s just a matter of time. That third guy needs to be very reliable.”
So basically the decision here is to weigh a younger, more cost-effective option with an upside -- former practice squad safety Tre Sullivan -- versus the security Graham offers.
The answer is a simple one but requires a crystal ball no one has. If Hicks and Bradham are healthy and playing full-time and you only need that third-safety 15 to 20 percent of the time you go with Sullivan. However, if you need someone over 80 percent of the time while Tom Brady is throwing darts, you want the veteran.
We already know what the coaches think.
“With Corey, it wasn’t an issue bringing him into the game," Hauck said. "It came down to trust. As coaches, it’s hard putting an unknown on the field when you don’t know what outcome is going to be."
IS SULLIVAN READY?
When building a roster from Howie Roseman's perspective, however, you also have to take into account 2019 and 2020 as well and perhaps this is Sullivan's time to take the next step. Sullivan received quite a few first-team reps at safety this spring opposite McLeod when Jenkins went down into the slot.
"It's been great," the Shepherd product told 973espn.com. "Just learning from Malcolm and Rodney on how to be a professional and then being able to get reps with them on the field. It's a good situation."
Sullivan spent part of last season on the practice squad and was one of a group of players the coaching staff lauded when talking about the unheralded guys who got the Eagles' stars ready to play each and every week -- a list which also included Steven Means, De'Vante Bausby and Greg Ward.
The biggest leap Sullivan has to make now to start preparing against the 2018 scout team is in coverage. Needless to say, the difference between Division II football at the college level to the NFL is significant.
"There was an adjustment period," Sullivan admitted. "Being here last year and getting to play with Malcolm and Rodney [in practice] has helped a lot."
When away from the NovaCare Complex Sullivan spent much of his time working out in Los Angeles with teammate Ronald Darby and a number of other NFL caliber players. The improvement was obvious as a more confident Sullivan showed up for OTAs, according to secondary coach Cory Undlin.
"Tre Sullivan has done a great job," Undlin said. "He’s a sharp guy.”
The final step for Sullivan is turning the teaching he got in the offseason into production when being evaluated this summer. That and earning Schwartz's trust, something that is easier said than done.
"Yet to be told with that," the defensive coordinator answered when asked if he could trust a younger player in the Graham role.
Sullivan, meanwhile, plans on telling Schwartz a simple story, one which says the 23-year-old is ready to be trusted.
"I have an opportunity and I'm just doing my best to try to take advantage of it," Sullivan said.
If you're looking for the next Corey Clement when it comes to the 2018 batch of Eagles' undrafted free agents the best course of action may be to temper the expectations. The assumption that there is always going to be a meaningful contributor in every undrafted class is a flawed one but that doesn't mean some don't have a clearer path to a potential roster spot than others.
When it comes to the current crop of undrafted free agents trying to catch the eye of Doug Pederson there are probably three names to keep an eye on: former Notre Dame Heisman candidate Josh Adams, South Florida defensive tackle Bruce Hector, who got $60,000 in guarantees to sign with Philadelphia, and versatile South Alabama defensive back Jeremy Reaves.
The latter might be the best for this Eagles team, however. At 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds Reaves is undersized for a safety but he has a hitter's mentality and a background that is interesting to the Eagles for a number of reasons.
Schwartz like safeties with some experience playing cornerback on their resume best indicated by the fact the team's top three from the Super Bowl LII season: Jenkins, McLeod, and Graham all played outside at one time in their careers with Jenkins and Graham having done it at the professional level.
Reaves started as a CB before moving to safety after proving he had the mindset to help in run support despite the lack of ideal physical dimensions.
Because of his ability to move around and the fact that he played in a pro-style defense at South Alabama, a system Reaves likened to a Seattle Cover-3 when talking to 973espn.com, the Eagles developed a keen interest in him early in the draft process and even had Reaves in for a top-30 visit.
The belief around the league was strong that the Pensacola native would be earmarked for Philadelphia late on Day 3 in the draft but with only five total picks and the comfort of knowing former Southeast Area Scout Alan Wolking had developed a very good relationship with Reaves the Eagles felt comfortable that he would be there as a priority free agent.
It was a calculated gamble and Reaves admitted that the "phone was going crazy" as teams jockeyed for a draftable commodity but from his perspective the relationship he developed with Wolking was the tipping point, as well as the understanding that the Eagles were in the market for a third safety with Graham a free agent and set to turn 33 in late July.
Ultimately, Philadelphia got the Suncoast Defensive Player of the Year for $30K in guarantees.
"This is a great place for me," Reaves said. "From the scheme and the what they want at the position to guys like that [Jenkins and McLeod] who can really help [the young players]."
Add a couples inches and 20 pounds to Reaves and take away the L5 lumbar fracture that forced him away from the game for a bit as a senior in high school and you're probably talking about a Day 2 pick.
"I've been doubted my whole life," he said. "Everybody says that I'm too small, I'm too slow, I don't have the size to play in this league. I think about that every time I hit somebody."
That chip on Reaves' undersized shoulder figures to be valuable motivator moving forward.
"I'm a winner," Reaves said. "That's something I believe is inside me."
SS1 Malcolm Jenkins - The most versatile part of the Eagles' defense. Essentially played five positions (strong safety, free safety, nickel corner, outside corner and nickel linebacker) at times last season.
FS1 Rodney McLeod - Eagles would probably like a few more plays for the cost but a dependable player on the back end.
ON THE BUBBLE:
S3 Tre Sullivan - Has worked his tail off to improve his coverage skills.
S4 Chris Maragos - The leader of the special teams coming off a serious knee injury.
S5 Jeremy Reaves - Undersized, high-priority UDFA, who produced a ton at a lower level (South Alabama).
PRACTICE SQUAD HOPEFULS:
S6 Stephen Roberts - The 'skinny pimp" has an SEC pedigree and quite the nickname
S7 Ryan Neal - Big (6-3, 200) physical UDFA. Can he cover?
S POSITION GRADE: 6.0
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-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen