Men With Many Hats
Birds New Safeties Can Play Various Roles, Competing For Playing Time
Of the candidates circling on the Eagles’ ever-revolving safety carousel, three figure to factor prominently into defensive coordinator Sean Desai’s equation.
In the team’s equivalent of musical chairs in recent years – a “Safety Dance,” perhaps? – a newly minted tandem will grace the starting lineup for the fourth time in as many seasons.
The free-agent departures of both Marcus Epps and 2022 interceptions co-leader C.J. Gardner-Johnson cast a daunting, and perhaps unfair, shadow on those vying to fill the vacancies.
It’s also possible, if not likely, that the glaring void – along with limited resources allocated at safety – will call into question the team’s longstanding approach if results aren’t favorable.
Gardner-Johnson epitomized a crafty backend bandit with an inherent knack for turning the tide at any moment, and his skill set was more distinctive than anyone currently in the room.
Epps served as an astute and steady, if unspectacular, counterpart who improved with reps. Although integral in his own way, Epps’ role will unequivocally be easier to fill.
The three candidates jockeying for two starting spots – Terrell Edmunds, Reed Blankenship, and Sydney Brown – provide varying skill sets and long-term upside.
But none possesses the playmaking ceiling of Gardner-Johnson.
Edmunds, perhaps the most recognizable name, agreed to a marginal one-year deal in the second wave of free agency. The 26-year-old immediately became heralded as the leader of a youth-infused room, having started 75 of the 79 games in which he appeared.
Anyone expecting Edmunds to suddenly strike a breakthrough like the one Anthony Harris experienced back in 2019 for the Vikings – when he was the NFL’s co-interceptions leader – is surely to be disappointed.
Turnover production has not exactly been his calling card through five seasons.
But there’s a scenario in which Edmunds, on his prove-it contract, serves as a capable placeholder, all while nurturing the inexperienced Blankenship and Brown before ultimately turning over the reins.
At his best, Edmunds is a tough, hard-nosed, fundamentally sound defender with coverage limitations. He also provides added value on special teams, accumulating 534 third-phase snaps, 107 of which he logged last season.
Presumably an early clubhouse leader in seizing one of the jobs, Edmunds must demonstrate consistency and leadership at training camp to secure his standing.
“I guess the next step, you could say, is just being an Eagle,” Edmunds said during his introductory presser. “All old narratives can change now because you’re in a new spot. You got a chance to make a new impression.
“You got a chance to go out there and put everything out there and really buy into the culture and go out there with new teammates and do everything you have to do.
“And just give everything I can to the Eagles organization, be very for this opportunity, and not let anyone down.”
As for Blankenship, the Eagles’ most recent undrafted success story currently has the inside track to accompanying Edmunds in the starting lineup.
The 24-year-old last season appeared in 10 games (four starts), compiling 34 tackles, two passes defended, and an interception in which he astutely read the eyes of Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers in a prime time game. He accounted for 291 defensive snaps after failing to log a defensive snap until Week 11 in Indianapolis.
In the NFC divisional round against the Giants, Blankenship became the first undrafted defensive rookie in team history to start a playoff game.
The second-year thumper is a tenacious tone-setter best deployed as a heat-seeking missile around the line of scrimmage, though Blankenship made encouraging strides in pass coverage.
His spirited stretch play inspired optimism in terms of a more prominent role moving forward.
“I’m not gonna say he plays like a veteran, but he plays like a guy that’s been playing for a minute,” cornerback James Bradberry told Inside The Birds last season about Blankenship. “That’s his work ethic.
“Also, his ability to pay attention and obtain knowledge from the coaches throughout the week. He’s a very smart guy, and he’s also a physical player. And we need that on defense.”
Given their respective skill sets, it would appear that an Edmunds-Blankenship tandem would be rather one-dimensional, potentially leaving the Eagles vulnerable in the passing game.
Perhaps the Eagles would be better platooning Edmunds and Blankenship in conjunction with starting the rookie Brown in the early going.
Brown won’t have much time this summer to make a tangible impression, and the learning curve for first-year players is often steep, but the 2023 third-round pick is best equipped to make an impact at the position.
Brown, a 2022 first-team All-Big Ten selection and the heartbeat of a swarming Illini defense, secured a career-high six interceptions and seven passes defended.
He was also disruptive around the line of scrimmage, notching 3.5 tackles for loss.
A physical, compactly built defender who plays the game in an urgent, instinctive manner, Brown might exhibit some imperfections as a pass defender coming in but boasts translatable traits that suggest a largely well-rounded game with added refinement.
With an expedited assimilation into Desai’s scheme, Brown could play his way into the starting lineup sooner rather than later, providing a much-needed spark to a fairly nondescript bunch.
– Andrew DiCecco (@AndrewDiCecco) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.
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