A somewhat new development in the NFL is the use of hybrid defensive backs. The best known example of this is Packers star Charles Woodson. He plays in the slot in some sets. He is a linebacker in some nickel defense sets. He also plays like a safety at times. Woodson has the size and skill set to pull this off.
Other teams have variations on this. Troy Polamalu is a weapon for the Steelers. He lines up as a centerfielder at times, 15 to 20 yards deep. Other times he will blitz off the edge. You will even see him in the A-gap as a blitzer, trying to fire into the backfield and disrupt run plays. The Redskins use LaRon Landry as a safety/linebacker hybrid. He has the size to play linebacker for some teams, but still runs fast enough to cover well. Antrel Rolle is a corner/safety player for the Giants. Sometimes he's in the slot. Sometimes he's the eighth man in the box. Other times he's back in a deep zone. Adrian Wilson is a great player in the box. He led the Cardinals with 8.5 tackles-for-loss. Roman Harper had a strange year for the Saints. He struggled in coverage, but led the team with 7.5 sacks and was quite good playing up around the line of scrimmage.
The Eagles don't really have a player like this. In 2010 Nate Allen was used as a blitzer some of the time. He had mixed results. He's not meant to play up near the line, though. Allen is a natural free safety. Kurt Coleman has the toughness, but lacks the size and athleticism to be anything special. Jaiquawn Jarrett remains a mystery at this point.
Nnamdi Asomugha was used in the hybrid role for parts of the 2011 season. It still isn't clear if this is something Juan Castillo pushed on him or if Asomugha requested it. That doesn't really make a huge difference, but it would help with trying to understand the thinking behind some defensive strategies. Does Castillo want a hybrid defensive back? Was Asomugha simply trying to expand his game? He played in Oakland where his role was strictly to shut down one receiver. Asomugha was great at that, but it can be frustrating when not much action comes your way. Some guys want to be used creatively. It is a challenge for them.
Asomugha has the size and athletic ability to be a safety/corner hybrid. His problem was playing in the box against the run. He's simply not a physical run defender. That's where comparing him to Woodson is unfair. Woodson is a freak. He's willing to mix it up with blockers and throw his body around in traffic. Few corners have that kind of mentality and physical toughness.
Asomugha was very good at covering tight ends when he was used to do that. He has the size, length, and athleticism to deal with them on short routes or when they go deeper. I think Castillo would be wise to use Asomugha on tight ends in some situations in 2012. Don't do it every week, but mix that look in when facing Jason Witten, Vernon Davis, and Jermichael Finley type players.
There is one player in the upcoming draft that could be an interesting target if Castillo and the Eagles do want a hybrid defensive back: Antonio Allen of South Carolina. Allen was used as a linebacker by the Gamecocks. If you watch enough college football you'll see big safeties playing a linebacker spot often called the "spur". Most guys who do this aren't great at it, but the coaches use them that way because it helps the team to have the 11 best players on the field. There is a drastic shortage of good linebackers in the football world (thanks to the spread offense).
Allen was great for South Carolina as their Spur linebacker. He had 55 solo tackles, which led the team. He had 9.5 tackles-for-loss and four forced fumbles. Allen was right at home playing up on the line of scrimmage. Put on the game tape and you'll see that's true. Allen is 6-1, 206, but plays like a linebacker. He will battle with blockers to get to the ball. Heck, some linebackers don't want to do that. Allen is tough and fearless.
The reason Allen could be special is that he still can cover. I watched him in the Senior Bowl practices and thought he was solid in the coverage drills. You don't want him on DeSean Jackson one-on-one, but he could be effective against some tight ends and running backs. He's fine in zone against receivers. He might be able to play the slot in some looks, but you'd prefer him in there to blitz or play the run.
Allen is a good tackler. He wraps up his targets and puts them down aggressively. He is excellent in pursuit and has good closing speed. He only had 3.5 sacks in college, but should be a good blitzer. He's athletic enough to fly off the edge and is good at finishing plays.
If the Eagles had interest in a hybrid player, Allen could be the way to go. He would take Coleman/Jarrett's spot in the starting lineup. On expected run plays, you could line him up down in the box. He could get right up on the line or fill the spot of a linebacker, who would himself move up on the line. In the nickel, Allen could take the spot of a linebacker in some looks. You could also keep Nate deep and then have Antonio Allen in the box with two other linebackers. Or you could play him in the slot when facing a team with a big slot receiver. Allen would be fine against a Jason Avant type. You would not want him on a Wes Welker type.
Allen would give you a lot of options. I'm sure some will wonder why not just use Keenan Clayton in such a role. That's a good question, but this is where size can be deceiving. Clayton is at his best playing in space. That allows him to use his speed and athleticism. Allen is at his best when he's able to use his toughness. Don't focus on size here. Clayton is bigger, but less physical. Allen is a good run defender and more of a tough guy.
The problem with all of this is that the safety class is very weak this year. Allen could be the first safety off the board. Mark Barron is my top ranked safety right now, but is dealing with a double hernia and won't be healthy until the spring/summer. Allen could go in the second round. The Eagles have spent second round picks in the last two years on safety prospects. Do they dare do it again?
I think the prudent thing to do is to let the young guys already on the roster show you what they can do when healthy and with the benefit of a full offseason. That said, if the team does decide to add a safety, Antonio Allen would be the player I would target. I don't see him as a project at all. He's the kind of guy who could step in right away and play. Allen comes from the rugged SEC so adjusting to life in the NFL wouldn't be so drastic. He's got the body and skill set to fit in from day one. The question is whether the Eagles believe in their young guys or would like to add a versatile player with some hybrid potential. It will be interesting to see what the team does. Only about 70 days left until the draft.