When Opportunity Knocked, This Eagle DB Answered
When news surfaced that Will Parks would begin the 2020 season on injured reserve, it appeared the Eagles had few options to turn to for reinforcement.
After all, the versatile former Denver Broncos safety was expected to wear numerous hats on defense and was viewed as a shrewd veteran who could help navigate a young secondary in the early goings.
With Parks on the mend, the team will entrust 24-year-old Marcus Epps to fill the void.
A former sixth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2019, Epps initially arrived in Philadelphia last November, courtesy of the waiver wire. The Iowa standout assumed a crucial third phase role, but his defensive contributions were minimal.
Epps contributed 112 special teams snaps in seven games with the Eagles last year – nearly 25 percent of the total – and 98 defensive snaps. He toiled in relative anonymity on game day – until he found himself trailing DK Metcalf in the waning moments of the playoff loss against Seattle.
With one minute, 47 seconds left to play, the Eagles forced a 3rd-and-10 deep in Seattle territory. Down 17-9, hope remained for the Eagles to get the ball back – if they could manage one more stop.
Instead, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson dropped back and completed a long pass to Metcalf for a 36-yard gain. Epps was beaten off the line by the rookie receiver and never recovered.
Given the alterations to the Eagles’ secondary over the offseason, Epps was soon regarded as little more than a camp body, a perceived victim of fewer opportunities and a damaged reputation because of his late-season lapse. How could he seize a roster spot amidst a crowded safety room?
But as ITB’s Geoff Mosher reported, the six-foot, 198-pound safety was among the surprises of training camp despite missing some time due to injury.
After he prioritized absorbing the playbook during the extended downtime, Epps returned to the NovaCare Complex a stronger, more explosive backend player. The gradual transformation was not lost on his defensive coordinator.
“Came to us middle of the year last year,” Schwartz said in a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday. “We plugged him in some of our dime packages, but we limited what he was asked to do in our defense. He played a lot in the post and the other guys, like [S] Rodney [McLeod] and Malcolm [Jenkins], sort of covered up.
“But with the whole gaining some experience last year and just adding another year in the same system, from the very first day of training camp not only has he improved mentally – and he's been always good that way – but just understanding and the little intricacies.
“But he was improved physically, too. Was faster, more explosive. He did miss a little bit of time with some injury stuff in training camp. I saw those guys as really improved players for us, and I think both of those guys will play a big part in our effort this year.”
Epps might lack Parks’ athleticism and experience, but what he's missing in size or speed, he compensates with inherent football smarts, instincts, and toughness. The team doubled-down on its belief in the second-year pro by neglecting to add another safety to the mix after the roster cutdown.
The past eight months have undoubtedly been a roller coaster for the once-discarded defender, but he’s equipped to make an impact for the first time in his young career.
-Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a contributor to InsideTheBirds.com. He also writes for Pro Football Network.