Safety first: Eagles have chance for do-over

February, 5, 2014
Feb 5
8:00
AM ET
PHILADELPHIA -- The secondary was already the Philadelphia Eagles' most obvious need area. After watching the NFL postseason, especially the Super Bowl, that need looked even more glaring.

Put another way: The Eagles got by with their secondary in 2013. Elite defenses do better than get by. Their safeties and cornerbacks are impact players.

Let’s look at the more dire safety situation first. We’ll address the cornerback position in a separate post.

Good safeties have been as elusive as unicorns for the Eagles since Brian Dawkins' unfortunate departure five years ago. (Say that out loud: Dawk's been gone for five years.) They have tried nearly everything to fill that void: second-round draft picks, second-day draft picks, midlevel free agents.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Ward
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesIt might be time for the Eagles to pursue a starting safety in free agency, like Cleveland's T.J. Ward.
As it happens, three of the safeties on the Eagles’ roster are to become unrestricted free agents next month: starter Nate Allen, former starter Kurt Coleman, and special-teamer Colt Anderson.

That should be viewed as an opportunity more than a problem. By doing nothing, the Eagles can start the process of turning over this part of their roster. They can really turn the page if they release Patrick Chung, who lost his starting job twice during the season.

That would leave Earl Wolff, last year’s fifth-round draft pick and the guy who took Chung’s job before getting hurt, and Keelan Johnson as the only two safeties on the roster.

When we said the Eagles have tried nearly everything, it’s because the one thing they haven’t done is sign a top-level free agent. For years, the Eagles rated the safety position fairly low on their list of priorities. Dawkins was a homegrown superstar who transcended the position, but their emphasis was always on edge pass-rushers and cornerbacks.

General manager Howie Roseman has said the team will avoid splurging on big-ticket signings, and that is a reasonable position. But one reason the team has struggled to resolve the safety problem is its insistence on mediocre, small-ticket free agents. Chung and Kenny Phillips were last year’s additions to a list that includes Sean Jones, Jarrad Page, Marlin Jackson and O.J. Atogwe.

Maybe Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd or Cleveland’s T.J. Ward will demand too much money to be options, but this might be the year the Eagles have to pay full-market price at this most challenging of positions. Miami’s Chris Clemons might be a better value signing.

You could make a case for retaining Allen, who had his best season. Maybe spending more time in Bill Davis’ defense will help Allen continue to grow. But the feeling here is that Allen personifies the concept of just getting by at the safety spot. The Eagles are not going to be a tough, hard-hitting, intimidating defense like Seattle or San Francisco by just getting by.

Sign one starter (Ward, preferably) and at least one veteran who can compete for playing time. Hope Wolff can lock down one starting position with a full offseason and some experience under his belt. Give Johnson a chance to earn a roster spot with special-teams play.

The timing is treacherous. If the Eagles allow Allen, Coleman and Anderson to walk, they will have to move quickly in free agency to fill at least a couple of those spots. They can hang on to Chung as security until they do. But the worst-case scenario is going into the draft in May with a desperate need for safety help.

The Eagles have done that before, and it has not ended well. But then, nothing they’ve done at safety has gone much better.

Phil Sheridan

ESPN Philadelphia Eagles reporter

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