BY JARED NAGLE, Staff Writer
Off Season Need #3: Free Safety
As radical and off the beaten path as it is, I believe there are a lot of similarities between the free safety position and the tight end position. As a reader you are probably saying to yourself, “oh my God, High Hopes’ newest Eagles beat writer doesn’t know the difference between offense and defense!” In fact, I do know the difference, and I am willing to back up my proclamation with some insight.
The easiest comparison to draw between the two positions is that the tight end is often covered by the free safety, but of course that’s too easy. These two positions are comparable for three reasons:
First of all, while both positions have the potential to be game changers, it is not necessary to have an elite tight end or free safety to win in this league. If you don’t believe me, ask the 2008 NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals who they started at tight end. The answer will be former fringe Eagles TE Stephen Spach. Also, though Colts FS Antoine Bethea is a good player, he isn’t exactly a game changer for the 2009 AFC Champs.
Secondly, though there are 32 teams in the league, there are no more than 2 or 3 player in the league who are elite at each respective position. For example, at free safety there is a pretty steep drop off after Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed. At tight end, Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, and Jason Witten have been in a league of their own for sometime now.
The rarity in which a team comes across an elite player at either one of these positions leads me to my last reason. When teams for whatever reason part ways with their stud free safety or tight end, they have a difficult time replacing them.
For example, the Broncos have spent the past six years and two first day draft picks attempting to replace future Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe, and have yet to do it. Hell, the 49ers are still trying to replace Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, and he retired 15 years ago.
If you are confused, so am I, but there is a method to my madness. If you are wondering what all this has to with the Eagles need at free safety, then the answer lies with the legend they let walk out the door a year ago: Brian Dawkins.
Legends like Dawkins don’t grow on trees, and they don’t grow in obvious places like Round One of the Draft. Dawkins himself was a fifth round pick back in 1996. I’m sorry Eagles fans, but Dawkins can’t be replaced, no matter how many calls are put into WIP stressing the need for a new free safety.
However, the position can be upgraded. It is safe to say that despite the efforts of Sean Jones and rookie Macho Harris last season, the position was the second biggest issue on defense, only after a lack of pass rush upfront. Stability at the free safety position is a must going into next season if the Eagles want a realistic chance at rebuilding their defense.
The Eagles have three options. First, they can hope that two years off an ACL surgery Sean Jones is back to 100% because what common Eagles fans don’t seem to realize is that Jones was a pretty good player in Cleveland before the injury. In fact, Jones had 14 interceptions between 2006-2008 for the Browns. Second, they can hope that Macho Harris shows himself to be the playmaker he was in college after a full off-season in the system. Lastly, they can address the position with a high draft pick or quality free agent.
My advice for the Eagles? Hedge your bets. Bring Jones back as he is slated for restricted free agency (unless a Collective Bargaining Agreement is reached), let Harris continue to develop, and bring in a third party and have a training camp competition. It is not likely that the Eagles will have a Pro Bowl caliber player at free safety, but it is important for that position not to be a liability like it was a year ago.
The position will be addressed one way or another, but it is important for the Eagles and their fans to know, it’s not easy replacing a legend.