Last Thursday, I previewed the offense and this past Tuesday, I previewed the defensive line and the linebackers for the Birds. Today we cover the rest of the defense and the special teams. As with the rest of the team, there are a number of questions surrounding the secondary entering the season. Will the Birds finally find a successor to Brian Dawkins at free safety? Who will start opposite Asante Samuel at cornerback? And will Nate Allen, rookie and likely starter at free safety make it to training camp on time?
Cornerback: Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs, Joselio Hanson, Macho Harris, Geoffrey Pope, Dimitri Patterson, Trevard Lindley, David Pender – Entering the season, the only certainty is that Asante Samuel will be on the field and the focus of the secondary. Samuel has 13 interceptions during his two season with the Eagles, 9 coming last year. He should continue to be one the best corners in the league meaning that teams will focus their air attack across the field where the Eagles do not have an entrenched starter. With Sheldon Brown roaming the defensive backfield in Cleveland, the starting job opposite Asante Samuel is an open competition. One of the three Hs: Hobbs, Hanson or Harris, will likely win the position. Hobbs played in only 8 games last year before being put on injured reserve following a neck injury. He will look to rebound from that injury and is probably the favorite to win the 2nd CB position. Hanson, third on the team in interceptions last season with 2, has been with the team for 4 seasons and knows the defense, making him a legitimate competitor for the starting job. Macho Harris played last season at free safety, starting 8 games. This season he has been taking most of his reps at corner and cannot be discounted. I think that Hobbs will win the position to start the season, but he may not be able to hold it for the entire season.
Trevard Lindley, a 4th round pick in 2010, has been impressive during mini-camps and looks likely to make the roster. Patterson and Pope, both on the roster last season, along with rookie free agent Pender will struggle to make the roster, as the Eagles only carried 5 corners last season. Given the injury to safety, Marlin Jackson, it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility that Harris will be moved back to safety, freeing up a corner spot for one of the three Ps.
Safety: Quintin Mikell, Quintin Demps, Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman, Ryan Hamilton, Brett Johnson – Last season, the first without Brian Dawkins, produced a lot of uncertainty for the Birds at the free safety position. The two players who split time at free safety, Sean Jones and Macho Harris are no longer options. Jones, who started 9 games last season is now with Tampa, and Harris has moved to corner. The Eagles moved to address this void by drafting Nate Allen out of South Florida. Allen started 12 games last season for the Bulls and picked off 5 passes. He is expected to be the starter at free safety, but has yet to sign with the Birds. If he holds out into training camp there will be more uncertainty surrounding the position. How quickly will Allen be able to pick up the defense, and if he needs more time who will start in his place? The Eagles thought they had this answer when they signed Marlin Jackson, but his knee injury will keep him out for the season. Demps, who was named the successor to Dawkins last season, was unable to grab the job and will have to prove himself if he is to compete for the free safety job this season.
Strong safety is secure, with Quintin Mikell returning after starting 16 games in each of the last two seasons. He was a 1st time Pro Bowl selection last season and there is no reason to believe he will not continue to play on a high level. As for the rookies other than Allen, one of them will likely make the roster assuming the Eagles carry 4 safeties the way they did last season.
Special Teams: David Akers, Jon Dorenbos, Sav Rocca, Ken Parrish – This area is one of the few without any questions marks for the Eagles. The starters from last season all return, with Akers and Dorenbos earning Pro Bowl nods last season. David Akers is one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, and had a great season last year making 32 out of 37 field goals, and 43 out of 45 extra points. Over the past two seasons, Akers has made 84.4% of his field goal attempts and there is no reason to think he will drop off significantly. I expect him to post another solid season and be in contention for a Pro Bowl spot at place kicker. Dorenbos, the team’s long snapper, has been excellent since joining the Eagles in mid-2006. Having made his first Pro Bowl last season, expect Dorenbos to continue to play at a high level. The only competition on special teams (other than for kick/punt return duties) will be between Rocca and Ken Parrish. Before the start of the 2009 season, Parrish, an East Stroudsburg grad and life-long Eagles fan, was brought in to compete with the former Australian Rules Football player. Rocca ultimately won the position, but after a middle-of-the-pack 2009, Parrish will be given the chance to win the spot. I would be surprised if Rocca doesn’t win the competition, but stranger things have happened. The biggest question mark in this area will be who will return kicks? DeSean Jackson was the primary punter returner last season, and was a true threat to take it to the house every time he touched the ball. With his role in the offense sure to expand, will D-Jax keep returning punts? He led the league in punt return average, punt return TDs, and had the longest punt return in the NFL. The Eagles need to keep him on punt return duty. D-Jax is, simply, the most dangerous weapon they have. As for kick return duties, those will likely be split between several players. The top returner from last season, Ellis Hobbs, returns. Hobbs holds the record for the longest kick return in NFL history, a 108 yarder in 2007 against the Jets; however, he is in contention for the 2nd starting CB spot and if he wins the position he may be removed from kick return duty. Quintin Demps had the highest kick return average last season, he could be the answer for the Eagles.