The Eagles’ safety dance got just a little bit easier to follow on Friday.
Starting safety Rodney McLeod showed up for practice in helmet and cleats, after coach Doug Pederson included McLeod in a group Pederson said wouldn’t practice. Later, McLeod was listed as a limited participant, and deemed “questionable” on the injury report, for Sunday’s home opener against the New York Giants.
“I did individual period and things felt fine, so it’ll just be a gametime decision,” said McLeod, who suffered a hamstring injury in last week’s loss at Kansas City, as did corner/safety Jaylen Watkins and Corey Graham, the safety who replaced McLeod.
Watkins and Graham were listed as “out” on the injury report, a few hours after Pederson seemed to go to great lengths to obfuscate their status, and the players followed suit, talking of how they would see how they felt on Sunday.
Graham will end a streak of 159 successive games played, dating back to his rookie season of 2007, in Chicago.
The Eagles lost starting corner Ronald Darby for four-to-six weeks in their Week 1 win at Washington. But if McLeod can play, the other three-fourths of the secondary will be intact, with the only change being third-round rookie Rasul Douglas starting for Darby. Watkins drew that assignment last week, but went down early and was replaced by Douglas.
If McLeod can’t take his normal spot opposite Malcolm Jenkins, then it gets complicated, against an impressive group of Giants receivers. Special teams ace Chris Maragos would be the only other healthy safety on the roster, aside from Trae Elston, who has practiced as an Eagle twice since arriving on waivers this week from Buffalo. The Eagles could try situational packages that involve Jenkins as the only safety, with extra corners or linebackers; linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill said he has taken some reps as a box safety in practice.
Nickel corner Patrick Robinson and reserve corner Dexter McDougle both said they’d be up to play safety in a pinch, though both acknowledged they’d never done so in the NFL.
But McLeod seemed reasonably optimistic Friday.
“I did stuff today, so it’s a good sign,” said McLeod, who said he’d last injured a hamstring back in high school. He wore a pressure sleeve on his right leg at the start of practice. “Feels kind of new, but the [training staff] has been doing a good job, [I’ve] been working extra hard to get back. … We’ll see what happens Sunday in pregame.”
McLeod said he wouldn’t force himself to hobble out there just because Graham and Watkins are out.
“No. Guys are always prepared — that’s just how our room is. Guys are always ready to fill in,” he said. “You’ve seen that already. Everybody prepares like a starter.”
This is incredibly galling for Watkins. The Eagles drafted him in 2014’s fourth round as a corner, waived him in 2015, then brought him back later that season from the Bills’ practice squad. He converted to safety and saw action in all 16 games last season, performing a key role on special teams. This year, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz moved Watkins back to corner, and last week Schwartz gave him his first career NFL start at that position. It lasted 14 snaps.
This week, the team is thin at both spots, and Watkins, whose versatility and knowledge of the scheme are his best assets, can’t play.
“It’s very frustrating , especially being able to go back to corner and get your first start, but you just have to take it for what it is — it happens, it’s part of the game, and get back as quick as possible,” Watkins said.
Watkins, who said he was injured in punt coverage, also said being able to run on your own doesn’t mean a hamstring is OK.
“You can get out there and run … but you’re playing a different speed when you’re covering someone, actually get out in front of somebody and shadow somebody,” he said.
Graham, 32, said he’d never had a hamstring injury.
“It’s something I’m not really used to. So obviously, certain situations, try to play through certain things, but as I’m hearing from the trainers and everybody else, a hamstring’s one of those things you’ve got to be careful trying to play through, because [aggravating it] can turn a two-week injury into a season,” Graham said. “You’ve got to be smart with it. … I’m typically not the smartest when it comes to injuries — I’ve played through a lot of stuff.”
Graham said the games-played streak — second only to Pittsburgh’s William Gay (162) among active NFL defensive backs — “is important, but what’s more important is not tearing my hamstring off the bone and being gone the next 14 weeks because I want to play one week now. … I’ve got to think about the bigger picture. I can’t really be selfish and think about a games streak.”
Pederson noted that “every team goes through this … every team goes through gametime decisions” on injuries, as teams get deeper into the season.