NFL Draft: Forget a linebacker, but Eagles should take a safety early

Could Unversity of Virginia's Juan Thornhill (in photo) be on the radar? If not, he and a couple others should be

The Eagles have tried to find a safety they could grow through the years.

The list of tries since 2011 includes Blake Countess (sixth round, 2016), Ed Reynolds (fifth round, 2014), Earl Wolff (fifth round, 2013), and Jaiquawn Jarrett (second round, 2011).

None lived up their draft status. It’s why the Eagles signed Malcolm Jenkins as a free agent in 2013 and Rodney McLeod three years ago.

As for the linebacker spot, the Eagles never really tried to draft that “growth” player, though when Chip Kelly ran the show he plucked Joran Hicks in the third round. Hicks was a highly productive player – when healthy. With Hicks having departed for Arizona in free agency, the Eagles are left with Nigel Bradham, Nate Gerry, Kamu Grugier-Hill and signed Paul Worrilow and L.J. Fort.

That may be enough for them.

Executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman didn’t exactly sound like someone who was poised to spend the Eagles’ first-round pick – the 25th overall – in the NFL Draft, which begins Thursday night. Nor did he sound like he would jump on one with his two second-round picks – Nos. 53 and 57 – when the draft rolls into Friday.

“We brought in some people that we think can help this team, that we think are going to surprise people,” Roseman told reporters last week. “We have some younger players that are going to continue to grow. When you look at the linebacker position as a whole, it’s changed. It’s evolved.

“You have some guys who used to play linebacker who are moving to safety. The bigger linebackers now are moving to defensive line. There is not as many in the draft as their used to be because the position has changed. A lot of times you’re playing nickel so there are only two guys on the field instead of three. We look at all those factors.”

Safety has a different feel, and a position the Eagles could target at any of those first three picks.

Jenkins will turn 32 in December and, even though he is virtually indestructible, having played in all 80 games since joining the Eagles and just about every snap, too, he cannot play forever. His salary cap hit is also becoming a bit unwieldy, with an $11.3 million hit this season and $10.8 next year.

As for McLeod, well, he agreed to reduce his salary for this year, but he will now be a free agent heading into 2020.

The Eagles signed Andrew Sendejo to compete to be the third safety, but he turns 32 the day after the Birds open their season against the Washington Redskins on Sept. 8.

It would seem a must for the Eagles to find one to develop in the draft.

Avonte Maddox played well there in a pinch last year after never having played there in his career and that could be his position going forward. And maybe the Eagles decide to cross-train Jalen Mills and/or Rasul Douglas at safety. Either of these scenarios would be a surprise.

The Eagles have brought three safeties into their facility as part of the 30 pre-draft players they are allowed to entertain: Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Virginia’s Juan Thornhill, and Maryland’s Darnell Savage. Additionally, the team has done plenty of homework on Delaware’s Nasir Adderley.

Adderley couldn’t finish his pro day due to injury, but vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas was undeterred by Adderley being unable to complete his pro day in front of NFL scouts and personnel people.

The cousin of Herb Adderley, the Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back who starred for the Packers and Cowboys in the 1960's, Adderley could be a second-round target.

“He’s a guy who is versatile guy,” Douglas told reporters last week. “He played two years at corner, played two years at safety at Delaware so that versatility should aid him.”

The Eagles could throw a curveball in the draft and select a safety in the first round, but would likely only do so if they were trade back a few spots in order to get better value for that position.

Gardner-Johnson and Thornhill certainly could be considered first-round talent.

Both have the versatility the Eagles love, with Gardner-Johnson playing plenty of nickelback at Florida, a position from where he racked up three sacks, four interceptions, two pass breakups, and two QB hurries. He also received plenty of practice reps as an outside cornerback from spring drills a couple years ago.

As for Thornhill, he has played everywhere in the secondary. His Scouting Combine numbers were the best of any safety to take part with a 44-inch vertical and 11-9 broad jump. He also ran a 4.42 in the 40, which was fifth among all safeties in Indianapolis.

Savage could be a player sitting on the board in the second round should the Eagles go that route and rate him higher than Adderely. Of course, Thornhill and Gardner-Johnson may also be there in the second round.

Either way, I believe a safety will be taken with one of the first three picks.

Coming next: Making a case for a cornerback