Earl Wolff, Walter Thurmond vie for safety job


PHILADELPHIA -- As we continue our look at key Eagles training camp competitions, it helps to note that the safety position has changed a lot in the NFL over the past few years.

After the 2014 season ended, it would have not been surprising to hear that the Eagles would let Nate Allen depart as a free agent. It would have been less of a surprise to hear that the Eagles targeted one of the veteran safeties available on the free-agent market. They did, reportedly taking a run at Devin McCourty, who chose to re-up with the New England Patriots.

But if you’d been told that the competition for Allen’s job would be between Earl Wolff and Walter Thurmond, a free agent whose experience is exclusively at cornerback? That would have raised an eyebrow or two.

The whole thing is possible only because of the evolution of the NFL safety, especially as it applies to the Eagles’ defensive scheme. In Bill Davis’ defense, there isn’t a strong safety and a free safety. The traditional roles -- one guy is more like a linebacker, one is patrolling the deep middle -- are not used.

Instead, Davis wants both safeties to be able to adapt to either role. His safeties have to be able to offer support on running plays, but they also have to be able to cover a receiver whether they line up deep or at the line of scrimmage.

During his time in Seattle and with the New York Giants, Thurmond played mostly as a nickel cornerback. He lined up on receivers in the slot. That gave him a perspective that is similar to what Davis asks of his safeties. The other starting safety, Malcolm Jenkins, began his NFL career as a cornerback. He moved to safety before his second season and started 15 games there.

So it is possible to do what Thurmond is trying to do. Whether that was Kelly’s plan when the Eagles signed Thurmond is a separate issue. Overall, it appears coach Chip Kelly wanted to add as many defensive backs with versatility as possible. Second-round draft pick Eric Rowe was a safety at Utah before moving to corner for his senior season. He is focusing on cornerback for now, but he gives the Eagles another option if Thurmond and Wolff can’t get the job done.

As for Wolff, he has struggled with a knee injury that he suffered midway through the 2013 season. He tried to come back from it that year and tried again in 2014. He wound up having surgery that ended his 2014 season. During organized team activities, Wolff mostly worked with the training staff rather than taking part in team drills.

So Wolff is a question mark. Thurmond is trying a new position. Rowe is an option, but the coaches would like him to play cornerback. Then there are guys like Jerome Couplin, Ed Reynolds and Jaylen Watkins who could play their way into the picture. Same with special-teamers Chris Prosinski and Chris Maragos.

The Eagles have a lot of safeties. It remains to be seen whether they have the one safety they need.