Philadelphia Eagles positional reviews: Which Rodney McLeod will we see at safety?

Philly.com has been looking at the Eagles’ 90-man roster since last Monday, before they begin organized team activities on May 23. Here’s the schedule:

May 8: Wide receivers
May 9: Running backs
May 10: Offensive linemen
May 11: Tight ends
May 12: Defensive ends
May 15: Defensive tackles
May 16: Linebackers
May 17: Cornerbacks
May 18: Safeties
May 19: Quarterbacks

SAFETIES

Spotlight on: Rodney McLeod

Through Week 6 of last season, McLeod had totaled 55 tackles (9.2 avg.), three interceptions, one sack, and one forced fumble. He was all over the field, and the Eagles appeared to have hit the free-agent jackpot. But McLeod slowly came back to earth – his last 10 games, he averaged only 6.2 tackles and didn’t record a single turnover or sack – and by the end of the season, he seemed to have lost some of his bravado on the back end. He was mostly consistent. He was still probably the most effective centerfield safety the Eagles have had in years. But there was a reason the Rams allowed him to hit the market. He’s good but not great, and he was getting paid (5 years, $35 million) as if he was more of the latter. 

I don’t want to sound as if I’m dismissing McLeod’s talents or his contributions to the Eagles in 2016. There were games when he was one of the defense’s most reliable pieces. His partnership with Malcolm Jenkins gave the Eagles their best set of safeties since Brian Dawkins and Quintin Mikell. And he had to be taxed by having to play alongside below-average cornerbacks. We didn’t get to see much of the hard-hitting McLeod who roamed the secondary in St. Louis, likely because he sometimes had to play on his toes with Leodis McKelvin, Nolan Carroll, and Jalen Mills liable to get beaten deep at a moment’s notice. McLeod can bring the hammer. But will he get enough opportunities in the near future? The Eagles have invested in the cornerback position, but mostly through the draft, and the first one taken (Sidney Jones) probably won’t see the field in 2017.

The Eagles spent more on the safety position – they also extended Jenkins for four years and $35 million — than ever. Only the Seahawks have invested as much in the position — $17 million per year vs. the Eagles’ $15.75 million. But the Seahawks have perennial Pro Bowlers in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. McLeod and Jenkins are good, but they aren’t in that league. At least they weren’t last year.

McLeod is widely respected in the Eagles locker room. He’s a quiet, thoughtful, unassuming guy. But it still surprised me when he finished third, behind Jason Peters and Brandon Graham, when I did an informal survey in December asking Eagles players to choose one Pro Bowl-worthy player from the team. And this came around the time that McLeod was being questioned about his effort, in particular on two touchdown runs: – a 2-yard score by the Bengals when it appeared as if he was caught on his heels, and a 16-yard score by the Ravens when he took a bad angle to the ball carrier, but looked as if he was shying away from trying to make a play.

McLeod’s effort had never been questioned before. He said he has never given anything less than 100 percent. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz defended him and said that those plays had more to do with poor technique than a lack of effort. I’m inclined to believe both. That being said, it was a bad look, and for someone making as much as McLeod, those types of breakdowns are inexcusable.

So which McLeod will we see in 2017? The safety from the first six games or the one from the last 10 games or the one who made those errors against the Bengals and Ravens? More than likely, it’ll be a combination of all the above, which is fine. But the Eagles secondary might need more.

On the 53-man roster: Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Maragos, Jaylen Watkins

Jenkins had another strong year, but was the first to concede that it wasn’t as good as his 2015 season. He, too, was more effective earlier in the season. The win over the Steelers stood out. And the value of his versatility can’t be overstated. He wears many hats on defense – in-the-box safety, free safety, slot corner – and he also sets the secondary. But it’s fair to speculate whether all those responsibilities affected his play over 16 games. Nevertheless, Jenkins is as important a cog as any in Schwartz’s system.

Does that mean he isn’t expendable? No player isn't expendable, for the right price. The Saints reportedly were asking for Jenkins in a trade for receiver Brandin Cooks. The Eagles clearly entertained the idea. They desperately needed to get receivers this offseason. But the deal ultimately never came to fruition. Howie Roseman danced around the topic whenever asked, but Jenkins said that he never had issue with being mentioned in trade rumors. He said his former team had told him it regretted letting him walk, and he understood that anyone is available given the right circumstances. Jenkins will turn 30 in December and is entering his ninth season. But he hasn’t missed a game in three seasons in Philly and there isn’t a player who prepares as much both mentally and physically for the season.

He lobbied for the Eagles to draft a cornerback in the first round. They did not and took defensive end Derek Barnett. They did select corners in the next two rounds, but only third-rounder Rasul Douglas has a chance to make an impact this year. It’ll be interesting to hear what Jenkins has to say about the draft when organized team activities start next week.

Jenkins couldn’t have played in the slot in the nickel defense unless Watkins was able to step in and play one of the safety spots. Watkins has come a way since the Eagles drafted him as a cornerback in 2014. The team never seemed quite sure of what to do with him during his first two seasons – moving him back and forth between corner and safety and then briefly releasing him – but Watkins seems to have found a home at safety. Tackling had been his chief problem, but after working with Dawkins, among others, he made strides in that department. But he’s still a work in progress. There were far too many breakdowns on the back end -- in particular in the Ravens game when he was late to help on a 34-yard touchdown pass just before halftime. It’s unclear if Jenkins will play as much in the slot this season and if Watkins will be needed as much, but he heads into camp once again as the No. 3 safety.

Maragos signed an extension in November that keeps him under contract with the Eagles through 2019. For the second time in the last three seasons, he led the team in special-teams tackles. Maragos is often the first man down on coverage teams and he is also a blocker on both return units. He has struggled when tossed in at safety on defense, but he didn’t get that opportunity last season. His strengths lie on special teams, and that is where he will remain with the Eagles for the foreseeable future.

On the 53-man bubble: Terrence Brooks

Brooks was claimed off waivers just before last season. He was selected in the third round of the 2014 draft by the Ravens and played in 23 games over two seasons in Baltimore. His contributions with the Eagles were mostly on special teams. He was active for 11 games and recorded five special-teams tackles, two of which forced fumbles. The highlight of his season came in the penultimate game when Schwartz inserted him into the defense for the first time. The Giants were driving for the win and the Eagles, up until that point, had trouble stopping Odell Beckham Jr. Schwartz went with six defensive backs – at least one exclusively assigned to the receiver – and had Brooks deep. When Eli Manning heaved an up-for-grabs pass, Brooks intercepted it to end the game.

If the Eagles keep five safeties again – and they could with how light they are at corner – Brooks would seem the likely candidate to round out the five again. The Eagles didn’t add any safeties in free agency or the draft.

On the 90-man bubble: None

Draft picks: None

Tre Sullivan was signed as an undrafted rookie this month. He played safety at Division II Shepherd in West Virginia. He’s 6-foot and 200 pounds and over his last two seasons in college recorded 129 tackles, 20 passes defensed, five interceptions, and three tackles for loss.