Eagles improve secondary with scheme-fit additions

With new names in the Philadelphia Eagles' secondary for 2016, is the unit stronger than the 2015 version?

| 1 year ago
(Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

(Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

Eagles improve secondary with scheme-fit additions

A regime change has brought a new defensive coordinator, as well as a change in scheme, to Philadelphia. Billy Davis and Jim Schwartz could hardly be more different in terms of their philosophy. At least during his three years in Philadelphia, Davis ran a 3-4 scheme with a conservative front; Schwartz, meanwhile, operates with four defensive lineman and tasks them with generating penetration. Former Rams safety Rodney McLeod was signed to a long-term contract this offseason, while Walter Thurmond was allowed to walk in free agency (still unsigned at this point). In contrast, Howie Roseman actually freed up resources at the cornerback position, where the underperforming Byron Maxwell was shipped out to Miami in exchange for Leodis McKelvin. Nolan Carroll was retained. Below is a breakdown of those moves.

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New scheme, new skill-set

The risk/reward approach adopted by the defensive linemen in Schwartz’s defense puts extra pressure on the safeties to make open-field tackles in the run-game. Eagles’ fans experienced first-hand the importance of tackling at the safety position in this scheme, when defensive line coach Jim Washburn operated a wide-9 front in 2011–2012. Philadelphia’s safeties missed 35 tackles in his final season. Washburn and Schwartz worked together for a number of years in Tennessee. The head coach at the time, Jeff Fisher, has already educated Schwartz’s major offseason signing—McLeod—during his new job with the Rams. Experience in the scheme explains McLeod’s addition on a five-year, $37 million contract ($17 million guaranteed); he is a young, ascending player who has proven effective in a similar defense.

2015 season tackling statistics

Player Tackle attempts Tackles missed Miss % NFL rank
Rodney McLeod 84 7 8.3% 9th
Walter Thurmond 82 13 15.9% 47th

Thurmond is far from a poor player, as he ranked 26th amongst NFL safeties in 2015, with a 79.3 overall grade. But his issues as a tackler in space make him a poor scheme fit. In contrast, Rodney McLeod ranked amongst the most-reliable tacklers last season. He also has the range to cover sideline-to-sideline in the single-high (cover-one/cover-three) scheme. 68.8 percent of the Rams’ coverages involved a single-high safety in 2015. McLeod was effective playing the deep middle last season, allowing a QB rating of just 76.9 and recording a 79.8 coverage grade. He ended the season as our 10th-overall safety with an 83.9 overall grade.

On paper, McLeod will be an upgrade over Thurmond. It’s somewhat surprising, however, that the Eagles have shown so little interest in continuing Thurmond’s tenure in Philadelphia. He’s a capable NFL player, with the versatility to play safety or corner. Thurmond’s specific skill-set makes him a poor scheme fit, however. McLeod, on the other hand, has sufficient experience to minimize the projection in a defense led by Schwartz. Partnering him with Malcolm Jenkins should give the Eagles’ a pair of solid safeties in 2016.

Searching for a slot corner

Utilizing Malcolm Jenkins at nickel was a particularly effective strategy for the Eagles’ defense in 2015. Conversely, shifting Jenkins back to safety in the games against Detroit and Tampa Bay proved disastrous. He allowed just 0.78 yards per snap in Billy Davis’ final season, good for third in the league, and a QB rating of 86.5, which was 15th-best. Schwartz may also decide to employ Jenkins in the slot next year, but he’ll need a young player to emerge at safety if he does go that route. Special-teams ace Chris Maragos has the most career NFL snaps among the team’s current backups, with just over 400. Ed Reynolds and Jerome Couplin are almost totally unproven.

For that reason, it seems more likely that the Eagles will shift one of their corners inside. Second-year corner JaCorey Shepherd was set to see significant snaps in the slot as rookie, but had his season curtailed by a torn ACL. He recorded the 11th-highest FBS coverage grade in his final year at Kansas, and will be back to compete at the position. Shepherd will likely compete with Nolan Carroll, who manned the spot effectively in 2014 before shifting to the outside last year. He played mostly as a dime linebacker in his first year in Philadelphia, but allowed only a QB rating of 71.0 and 0.58 yards per cover snap when directly lined up in the slot. Carroll also possesses the physicality to help in the run game on the interior. While he won’t be mistaken for a shutdown corner anytime soon, Carroll is an excellent third corner who can hold his own as a starter.

Decisions on the perimeter

It’s perfectly possible Carroll will win a job on the outside. Prior to breaking his leg on Thanksgiving, he was the Eagles’ best corner. Maxwell may have been making the money, but he struggled away from the rest of the “Legion of Boom” in Seattle. His effort was inconsistent, a criticism that could never be leveled at Carroll. Shedding Maxwell’s contract while moving up five spots in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft was a coup for Howie Roseman. Compare Carroll and Maxwell’s 2015 numbers:

2015 season coverage

Player Targets Receptions Yards TDs INTs PDs Coverage grade
Nolan Carroll 74 48 612 4 2 6 74.3
Bryon Maxwell 78 51 787 3 2 8 49.5

Maxwell may improve in Miami, but he had a poor season after cashing in with the Eagles. Eric Rowe returns after an inconsistent rookie season, while McKelvin offers familiarity with Schwartz after their time together in Buffalo. Below are Rowe’s numbers from 2015 and McKelvin’s from 2014 and 2015.

2015 season coverage 

Player Targets Receptions Yards TDs INTs PDs Coverage Grade
Eric Rowe 58 30 349 3 1 5 46.8
Leodis McKelvin (2014) 61 42 529 2 4 3 N/A
Leodis McKelvin (2015) 53 25 327 2 2 4 48.0

Rowe’s numbers appear poor, but he played fairly well aside from a demolition at the hands of Calvin Johnson coming off the bench on Thanksgiving, where he allowed 85 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Rowe will be given every chance to win a job on the outside. McKelvin, meanwhile, has been hampered by injuries the past few years but possesses starter-level upside if healthy. A group including Carroll, Rowe, and McKelvin has plenty of potential, even if each player still has question marks.

Overall assessment

Each of the Eagles’ additions in the secondary have experience in the scheme they plan to run next season. McLeod played under Fisher, while McKelvin and Ron Brooks played in Buffalo under Schwartz. The new defensive coordinator can facilitate a full competition between his former players and the Eagles’ incumbent personnel. The lack of certainty in the secondary, however, also reflects a lack of talent somewhat. One of their options might experience a breakout season, but it’s unlikely the Eagles’ corners will be much more than average in 2016. They are, though, unlikely to be worse for the loss of Maxwell. The outlook at safety is much more assuring, with McLeod and Jenkins likely to form one of the better duos in the league.

| Analyst

John joined the PFF team in 2008, providing focused analysis on the NFL draft, team-building strategies, and positional value.

  • Tim Edell

    “While McKelvin offers familiarity with Schwartz after their time together in Detroit”. This should read from their time together in Buffalo.

  • bushisamoron

    Thurmond is debating retirement and that is why he is not on a roster. Rowe is one started, McKelvin/Carroll is the other. Other than that good article.

  • chikkjac

    If we get Vernon Hargreaves, we’re set.

  • KAO

    Dude these guys are too in love with their stats sometimes. A difference of 6% in tackle efficiency has that big of a difference in rank means that you need to look deeper at that stat lol Thats insignificant to say the least, especially when it doesnt designate if it was open field or not.

  • Brandon