FILE - Notre Dame defensive back Kyle Hamilton is shown during an NCAA football game on Monday, Sept. 2 , 2019, in Louisville, Ky. Spring practices have seen the defense learning new schemes. The secondary again will be led by All-America free safety Kyle Hamilton, who is recovering from ankle surgery and not participating this spring. (AP Photo/Tony Tribble, File)

Eagles seem destined to pick a safety early in the NFL draft

In the six drafts since Howie Roseman returned to personnel power, the Eagles have drafted just two safeties and neither was selected before the fourth round.

For most of that period, there wasn’t an immediate need. Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod were veteran starters, and while the latter missed some time because of injuries, it was a pairing that solidified the position during a four-year span which included a Super Bowl victory and three playoff appearances.

But the Eagles’ relative neglect in drafting safeties as preparation for Jenkins’ and McLeod’s eventual departures has left the position as thin as any entering this week’s NFL draft. As it stands, returning starter Anthony Harris and last season’s third safety Marcus Epps sit atop the depth chart.

“I think we have other defensive backs there too,” Roseman said last week. “We drafted K’Von Wallace. We have two guys — we brought Andre [Chachere] in here from Indy, and we have Jared Mayden here as well. And that’s even before the draft, and obviously we have a long time until we play a game.

“But we like those guys. That’s why we brought Anthony back. … That’s why we drafted K’Von. Marcus is a guy who played a lot of football for us last year. We’re excited about him, too. And so, I don’t know that necessarily we perceive it the same way.”

Roseman’s actions, however, speak louder. He tried to address the vacancy in free agency. The general manager made a competitive bid for Marcus Williams, but ultimately wouldn’t match the Ravens’ offer. He looked into signing Justin Reid, but lost out to the Chiefs. And he has reportedly expressed interest in Tyrann Mathieu.

So far, re-upping Harris to a one-year, $2.5 million contract — almost less than half of what he signed for last year — is all the Eagles have done. Mathieu’s availability, and that of other free agents, doesn’t necessarily force Roseman into drafting a safety. There is also the trade market.

But considering the projected depth of the class, the Eagles’ 10 picks, and their obvious need, it would be a surprise if the draft ended without the team selecting a safety or a converted cornerback. One could come as early as Day 2 with approximately eight to 10 safeties, depending upon the source, projected as second- or third-round-caliber prospects.

The cream of the crop, though, may be the only first-round safety, and could be drafted as early as the top 10. Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton has what many scouts deem a rare combination of size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) and athleticism. It was, most important, shown on film.

NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah has Hamilton ranked as his fifth-best overall prospect. While Hamilton’s 4.59-second 40-yard dash at the combine could make some teams apprehensive about drafting a safety early, few expect the 21-year-old to drop into the middle of the first round where the Eagles have the No. 15 and 18 picks.

“That would be a tremendous value in my opinion for them if they were to have an opportunity to pick him with one of those picks,” Jeremiah said last week before he slotted Hamilton to the Eagles at 15 in his final mock draft on Wednesday. “I would have no problem with that. I know they haven’t historically done that, but I could make a strong case that it’s a need and that would be a home run pick in my opinion.”

» READ MORE: Eagles draft preview: Safeties they might consider in the early rounds

The Eagles have never taken a safety that high, at least in the modern era of the NFL. They did select Ben Smith in the 1990 first round (22nd overall). But the second round was the earliest the team would expend picks on the position, however few, over the next 20 or so years.

Gold was struck in 1996 with Brian Dawkins, and Michael Lewis paid dividends six years later, but the Eagles’ next two second-round stabs at safety failed to deliver. Roseman was a neophyte GM when Nate Allen and Jaiquawn Jarrett were chosen in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

He didn’t have final personnel say, but he was likely influenced by those misses. The Eagles hoped that either Allen or Jarrett was capable of offsetting the departure of Dawkins, but the safety play from 2009-12 was mostly dismal.

Roseman also had to account for schematic changes that placed varying degrees of emphasis on certain positional features. Versatility became paramount as defenses shifted away from having fixed free and strong safeties. But it also made sense to account for coaching changes and how schemes can evolve.

The Jenkins signing in 2013 helped cover the Allen and Jarrett errors. And in the next three drafts, Roseman downshifted and took fliers on Day 3 prospects like Earl Wolff, Jaylen Watkins, and Ed Reynolds.

His best roll of the dice came with seventh-round cornerback Jordan Poyer in 2013. The Eagles had plans to move him to safety, but when a roster reshuffling left him unprotected, the Browns claimed him and moved him to the position. Poyer has since had a productive five seasons with the Bills and was named first-team All-Pro last season.

McLeod, another former cornerback like Jenkins and Poyer, arrived via free agency in 2016. In then-defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s scheme, safeties played vital roles, whether it was in the single-high post, or closer to the line covering tight ends and in run support.

Schwartz also wasn’t resistant to altering his defense to the strengths of his players, particularly Jenkins, whose versatility allowed him to play multiple roles. It should be noted that Roseman came close to attempting to find Jenkins’ replacement in the 2020 draft. If he hadn’t chosen quarterback Jalen Hurts in the second round, now-Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn would have been the likely pick.

The responsibilities of the Eagles’ safeties, though, changed significantly with the arrival of Jonathan Gannon last year. The Eagles’ new coordinator placed an emphasis on zone coverages with two deep safeties, sometimes seemingly as far off the ball as any in the league.

McLeod, who signed with the Colts earlier this month, Harris, and Epps didn’t often get beat over the top, but the spacing of the defense often neutralized their involvement. Was that to cover their faults by design, or was Gannon simply employing his bend-but-not-break philosophy?

“I think one of the things with Gannon, I see it with Brandon Staley out with the Chargers, and those guys are really close, that I don’t necessarily marry them to one scheme specifically,” Jeremiah said. “I know what they’ve traditionally done, but I know that they can adjust around the guys that they have.

“I still think there’s a lot of value with a versatile safety that can be a match-up player. You can use him different ways to help you disguise what you’re doing.”

Hamilton clearly fits that mold. But he’s likely out of range, which opens myriad possibilities in the second and third rounds, where the Eagles currently have three selections (Nos. 51, 83, and 101 overall).

Michigan’s Daxton Hill (6-0, 191), Georgia’s Lewis Cine (6-2, 199), and Baylor’s Jalen Pitre (5-11, 198) are ranked by Jeremiah and other analysts behind Hamilton and likely to be drafted somewhere in the late first to early second round.

Hill and Pitre are considered more versatile in pass coverage than Cine, who is more of a run enforcer, and would thus seem better suited to the Eagles. But all three may be gone if the Eagles stand pat at No. 51.

Penn State’s Jaquan Brisker (6-1, 199) could make more sense at that spot. And if not, Baylor’s JT Woods (6-2, 195), Maryland’s Nick Cross (6-0, 212), or Nebraska’s Cam Taylor-Britt (5-11, 199), who mostly played corner in college, could be third -round options.

“When you look at pick 51, I think there’s a chance that you could see a Brisker there from Penn State,” Jeremiah said. “Pitre is probably a nickel and a safety. … If you wanted to go beyond that, you could go back to Baylor and get their other safety in JT Woods, who I think is going to be a stud. He’s just real tall and rangy. He ran in the 4.3s. He’s got a ton of ball production. I had six picks [for him] this year.

“So there’ll be options for them if they want safety. … I think it’s a pretty deep group.”

Of course, recent history suggests Roseman won’t use an early-round pick on a safety, or his reluctance could suggest that now is the time. Wallace was drafted in the 2020 fourth round after four dormant years following the 2016 sixth-round selection of Blake Countess.

There have been various low-cost additions via free agency or waivers — most recently, Epps, Mayden, and Chachere — over the years. But despite Roseman’s protests, he likely isn’t satisfied with the existing safeties on the roster.

After 10 long years, the Eagles may finally draft a safety early. Will they get it right this time?

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