PHILADELPHIA – In the days when intimidation was still a big part of the NFL, safeties like Ronnie Lott, Steve Atwater and Kenny Easley were lionized for their physical play, coupled with an ability to actually cover opposing receivers.
These days, however, the traditional safety is a dying breed, something Ed Marynowitz, the Philadelphia Eagles new vice president of player personnel, explained back in April.
“The way we play our safeties, we like those guys to be able to roll down and play slot coverage,” Marynowitz stated before the draft in April. “In order to play man coverage, they have to have the athleticism to do that. Typically, the traditional box safeties don’t have that.”
Marynowitz, a 30-year-old wunderkind in the world of NFL scouting after learning at the feet of Nick Saban in Alabama, even broke out the phrase “dying breed” when chatting about what we all think is a traditional safety.
The NFL has clearly evolved into a more pass-oriented league with a nod toward basketball in that spacing is all the rage. Trapping lead-footed players in space is what coaches like Marynowitz’s boss, Chip Kelly, dream about.
Meanwhile, the fact that player safety is now paramount to the league for both legal and ethical reasons has nullified the intimidation factor that hard-hitting, back-end defenders used to bring to the table, virtually legislating it out of the game.
Philadelphia fans lament that the Eagles haven’t been able to replace their own localized version of Lott in Brian Dawkins, the six-time All-Pro who fled the city back in 2009 to end his career in Denver.
What they don’t understand, however, is that Dawkins was among the last of that dying breed in that his style is no longer all that relevant in the NFL because coverage was never his strength and his hard-hitting ways translated into the ’15 game may get you three personal fouls penalties each Sunday.
More and more teams are moving away from traditional box safeties and toward prospects with better coverage skills and Philadelphia is no different. In fact the one constant on the back end for the Eagles is Malcolm Jenkins, the ex-Ohio State cornerback who morphed into a safety in New Orleans.
And the lead candidate to be Jenkins’ running mate next season is now former cornerback Walter Thurmond, who signed as a free agent with the team this offseason.
Thurmond excelled in the slot as a junior member of Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” before exiting in free agency to New York, where a torn pectoral muscle sustained in Week 2 derailed his lone season with the Giants.
The thought was Thurmond made the short trek down the Jersey Turnpike for a chance to be a starting cornerback with the Eagles. However, after Kelly and Co. drafted Eric Rowe in the second round, along with two other late-round corners (JaCorey Shepherd and Randall Evans), the decision was made to move Thurmond, who has lined up opposite Jenkins with the first team during Philadelphia’s OTAs.
“They came right before OTAs and said that they wanted me to move to safety,” said Thurmond. “They felt like that was a bigger need for them than the corner position, especially after drafting three guys.”
And Thurmond has fit in nicely, according to Kelly.
“Walt’s done a really nice job,” the coach said. “He’s probably been our most productive guy in the secondary in terms of pass breakups and strips and things like that.”
Kelly has a history with Thurmond dating back to their days at the University of Oregon and the coach realizes Thurmond’s biggest strength is reading the quarterback’s eye, something difficult to do when locked up in man-to-man coverage on the edge.
“He always seems to be around the ball,” Kelly continued, “so he seems like he’s fitting in there right now. But again, we still don’t have pads on, we’re still evaluating guys with helmets and shorts and T-shirts. But he’s been very productive so far.”
Thurmond discussed the position change himself on Tuesday after OTAs.
“I’m just playing in space now,” the now former CB said. “I’m not guarding just one receiver. You have to be more patient because you don’t want to get lackadaisical as opposed to playing corner when the ball can come your way on every single snap and you just never know. You’re constantly focused, constantly playing your technique. It’s just a different mindset that I have to take to approach the position change.”
The big concern with any corner moving off the edge is run support and at 5-foot-11 and just 190 pounds, you can certainly picture an Eddie Lacy-type playing the role of bowling ball against Thurmond.
“I learn from the young safeties because this is my first time playing the safety position and they have more experience than I do as far as playing the position,” Thurmond explained. “Everyone’s constantly learning, constantly teaching everybody. That’s how we get better at the end of the day. Run support is part of that.”
Thurmond’s main competition is supposed to be the oft-injured Earl Wolff, who is coming off microfracture surgery and testing the patience of Kelly, who claimed the third-year player has been cleared to practice by Dr. James Andrews.
“Earl has done nothing except stretch,” said Kelly. “There is not progress right now … He was cleared by Dr. Andrews a couple weeks ago, but it’s what he can tolerate.”
Wolff, who is much more physical than Thurmond at 210 pounds, had a different take on Andrews’ opinion.
“When they said ‘cleared,’ it wasn’t like, I’m cleared to go 100 percent,” said Wolff. “What Dr. Andrews said was, ‘Earl, I did microfracture surgery because your knee was rubbing bone to bone. I did a microfracture surgery, and my goal was to make sure it wasn’t touching bone to bone anymore.’
“So when I went out there, basically he said, ‘You know Earl, basically what I tried to get done is done. So now you can push yourself because basically the procedure that I tried to get done was basically fulfilled, so now you can go out there, now you can really progress. You can really push yourself now.’ So it wasn’t like I’m cleared to go 100 percent out there and practice 100 percent, no. It wasn’t one of those clears.”
Wolff did say he expects to be at that elusive 100-percent barrier by training camp but the semantics aren’t helping him with Kelly and that time frame might be too late as Thurmond continues to seize what is essentially now his job to lose.
“It’s been fun. I just embrace it,” Thurmond said of his high-profile move. “It’s a different position. I’m up for the challenge. I have to be a little more vocal as far as my responsibilities as a safety and getting the defense set in coverage and everything. It’s coming along. I’m getting more comfortable and it just comes down to getting better each day.”
John McMullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JFMcMullen.