As we approach the 2011 NFL Draft we start to get a feel for what teams are thinking. The Eagles have been looking high and low at safety prospects. This isn't a complete surprise. Quintin Mikell is a quality veteran, but is also a free agent. If he leaves, that puts a big hole in the secondary.
The Eagles have Kurt Coleman as a potential replacement for Mikell. Coleman was a rookie last year, but showed some potential when he started a few games during the year. He didn't set the world on fire, but looked like a player who could be a good starter at some point.
The problem with projecting Coleman as Mikell's replacement at strong safety right now is that Coleman might have to switch over to free safety. Nate Allen was a second round pick by the Eagles last year and looked like a star at times. Unfortunately Allen got hurt late in the year. The projection is that he'll be back to 100 percent by the start of training camp, but there are no guarantees. So right now you have Coleman (a seventh round pick), Allen (rehabbing from injury), and Colt Anderson as the top safeties on the roster. Not exactly Andre and Wes.
Anderson was a terrific special teams player in 2010. He played some on defense and showed the potential to be a solid role player, but I don't think of him as a starting safety. He's fine for a game or two, but not a projected starter. The Eagles also had Jamar Adams and Jamar Wall on the roster late in the year. Both guys are developmental types. Adams is a big run stuffer. Wall played cornerback in college, but lacks the speed to be a good NFL corner.
The Eagles hoped to sign a free agent and draft a mid-to-late round player to fill out the safety position. The free agent wouldn't be an elite guy. The target would most likely be an established starter that had talent, but wasn't living up to his full potential (thus making him available). The team could then use 2011 to find out if Nate Allen was all the way back and could see if Coleman was ready for a starting gig while relying on the veteran to be at least a solid player.
The Eagles tried this strategy last year (to a certain extent). Allen was supposed to compete with Marlin Jackson for a job. Jackson tore his ACL. Shocking, I know. His loss didn't affect the team since Allen took over at free safety and played well. Jackson is still on the roster, but counting on him would be utterly ridiculous. He's addicted to being injured the way I am to Whoppers and PBR. The Eagles also used this strategy in 2009. Sean Jones was signed to provide insurance in case Quintin Demps didn't work out. Demps did struggle. His initial replacement was fellow rookie Macho Harris, but Jones eventually got on the field. Jones wasn't a liability, but didn't play well. He was an adequate starter.
With so many young guys in the secondary the Eagles wouldn't go for a complete reclamation project like Jackson in free agency. They would find someone who has been durable. The problem now is that it looks like a virtual lock that there will be no free agency prior to the draft. There might be no free agency until the summer. With that in mind, the Eagles have adjusted their thinking at safety.
The team initially showed interest in mainly guys who are likely to go in rounds 4-7. That has changed. They have been visiting with and working out a lot of prospects, including guys who will go early. It isn't a lock that the team will take a safety early, but they now are legitimately considering that option. Let's take a look at the players the Eagles have been checking on.
Rahim Moore - UCLA - 6'0, 202
Moore is the top pure safety prospect in the draft. He has cornerback cover skills, but not speed. Very quick and an outstanding athlete. Moore had a huge sophomore season. In 2009 he picked off 10 passes, broke up seven more, and had three tackles-for-loss (TFLs). He made plays all over the field. He only had one pick in 2010, but don't make too much of that. Anyone who watched him workout at the Combine saw that he still has great ball skills. Moore plucks the ball naturally. He is very good on the move and tracks the ball very well when it's in the air. I expect Moore to have his share of interceptions in the NFL. He would be an interesting target for the Eagles. Moore is a free safety that is at his best playing back off the line. Allen already has that role. I do think Allen could successfully transition over to strong safety. Moore isn't as physical a player as Allen, but is an okay tackler. Moore could go late first round, but I think he'll be available in the early second. I don't see him as a probable target, but you never know.
Chris Conte - Cal - 6'2, 196
Flew under the radar for a while, but put on the game tape and Conte will impress you. Conte is a good pass defender and run defender. He is an outstanding tackler. Conte isn't a big time playmaker. He only picked off two passes in his career at Cal. Conte would play strong safety for the Eagles. He has the man cover skills to be good on tight ends. Conte isn't afraid to play in the box and mix it up on run plays. He had a really good workout at the Combine. That athletic ability translates to the field. He can cover a lot of ground. He has excellent closing speed. That helps him in coverage and when getting to ballcarriers out in space. Conte is probably a third round target. He isn't the most experienced player, but has the athleticism and skills to be a good NFL starter.
Jaiquawn Jarrett - Temple 6'0, 198
Jarrett spent his college years at The Linc and could play there on Sundays. He has the build of a free safety, but the skills of a strong safety. Jarrett is a very good hitter and tackler. He's very good in the box. Jarrett can make coverage plays (nine career interceptions and 18 pass break-ups). He's better in zone coverage than man. Jarrett is very experienced and was very productive in his career (299 total tackles). I think he could be an outstanding special teams player initially. Defense is a different story. I'm not sure he has the coverage skills to play on defense right away. Jarrett is a mid-round prospect.
Robert Sands - West Virginia - 6'4, 217
Huge player that has a lot of potential. Has NFL physical skills. I question whether he has the instincts needed to play safety in the NFL. Sands made a lot of coverage plays in 2009 (five interceptions, eight pass break-ups), but those numbers dropped drastically in 2010. He would definitely be a strong safety prospect. I watched a few game tapes and you could see his raw ability, but I think he's a bit of a project. Lots of upside.
DeJon Gomes - Nebraska - 6'0, 208
Interesting player. Sometimes he was a linebacker. Other times he lined up on slot receivers, almost like a corner. Gomes would play strong safety in the NFL. He was in on 99 total tackles in 2010. Gomes is right at home playing in the box and stopping the run. He also has good cover skills. He can make plays in the passing game. Gomes picked off three passes and broke up seven others this past season. It is hard to project Gomes to the NFL because of the way he was used at Nebraska. He might step in and challenge for a starting job right away or need time to develop.
Mark Legree - Appalachian State - 6'0, 210
If the Eagles want another ball hawk to add to the mix, Legree is a player to get. He picked off 22 passes in his career, all of them coming in three years as a starter. That is extremely impressive. He broke up another 21 passes. I guess you could say he's got pretty decent ball skills. Ran 4.56 at the Combine. At his best playing centerfield and attacking the ball in the air. I have my doubts about how he'll handle the jump to facing NFL competition, but any player with his level of production is someone to roll the dice on.
Isa Abdul-Quddus - Fordham - 6'0, 199
Abdul-Quddus played safety and corner for the Rams. He projects to safety in the NFL. Abdul-Quddus picked off three passes when playing corner in 2009. In 2010 he moved back to safety and finished second on the team in tackles. He also forced three fumbles. Abdul-Quddus ran 4.47 at his Pro Day and did 23 reps on the bench press. He's a good athlete, although he lacks great agility.
The Eagles also spent time at the Senior Bowl getting a close look at guys like Da'Norris Searcy, Eric Hagg, and Ahmad Black. The Eagles haven't been linked to those guys since then. Black is the best player, but only ran 4.78 at the Combine. Searcy is a guy I think could be a real good addition. He's a terrific athlete with good cover skills. He is 223 pounds and a solid run defender as well. He returned both punts and kickoffs in college and could be a help on special teams.
The Eagles are looking at so many guys and so many different types of guys that it is impossible to project what they are likely to do. Personally, I like the thought of them adding Conte or Searcy in the middle of the draft. We'll find out their plans in a few weeks. April 28th is fast approaching.