Again, Eagles go shopping for safeties
MOBILE, Ala. - If Chip Kelly drafts players the way he did last year, it wouldn't be bizarre if he selected Washington State safety Deone Bucannon in the NFL draft in May.
Three of the first four prospects the Eagles chose in Kelly's first draft played on college teams that beat Oregon when he was head coach, and all three performed well in those games.
Although Bucannon's Cougars were run over by the Ducks, 51-26, in 2012, the safety stood out by intercepting Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota twice.
Thirty-one other teams are also drafting, so the odds of Kelly's snatching Bucannon - even if he likes him - are long. But the Eagles are expected to give it another go at safety after years of failing to find impact players at the position.
The two nearly unanimous best safeties eligible for the draft - Alabama's Ha'Sean "Ha Ha" Clinton-Dix and Louisville's Calvin Pryor - aren't at this week's Senior Bowl because they're juniors. But Bucannon, Ahmad Dixon of Baylor, and Jimmie Ward of Northern Illinois are here and could be options in rounds two through four.
But each, like so many in a dwindling pool of NFL-ready safeties, has to overcome the perception that he either has a hole in his game or does not look the part.
"The Catch-22 with the safety position - you see it here - [is] there's a lot of big corners and those guys used to be safeties," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. "Now those guys are going to play corner. . . . So you look at those guys - can you convert them?"
The Eagles, though, have strictly selected college safeties over the previous four drafts and haven't done a very good job of it. Nate Allen, who will be a free agent in March, was chosen in the second round of the 2010 draft. Jaquawn Jarrett came the following year in the same round.
And Earl Wolff, who had a promising rookie season cut short by a knee injury, was drafted in the fifth round last year. But the jury is still out on him. And the Eagles still can't shake the criticism that comes every time Earl Thomas makes a big play on TV because they drafted Brandon Graham instead of the Seahawks safety.
"It seems like a lifetime ago that we're talking about the 2010 draft. It's understandable," Roseman said. "I think the only thing we can do from the drafts we've had in the past is learn from them. I think when we went into that the thinking was Brandon and Nate were a better pairing than who we could have gotten in those first and second rounds."
The Eagles could re-sign Allen and hand Wolff the starting job in the offseason, but they will have other spots to fill with Patrick Chung sure to be waived and Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson free agents.
The Bills' Jarius Bryd and the Browns' T.J. Ward are slated to become free agents, but "even the good players that are coming out . . . they're not 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds and 4.4 guys," Roseman said.
Bucannon, at 6-1, 216 pounds, "looks the part," according to NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock
"He's got good ball skills with 15 interceptions. I think he's got seven forced fumbles. He's been a disruptive kid. He was healthy. He started 43 games," Mayock said. "I get a little concerned with him in man coverage."
Although some scouts project Bucannon as a strong safety because of his size, he mostly played free safety at Washington State. The Eagles would prefer their safeties to be interchangeable. Bucannon knows he has something to prove.
"That's why I came out here, to show scouts that I can go down and cover," he said. "That my feet aren't as bad as they think, that my hips aren't as bad as they think. But they still need improvement."
Dixon is a compact 5-11 and 205 pounds. He wasn't asked to play much man-to-man defense at Baylor. He said he knows that teams question his ability to cover receivers.
"I'm not very good in one-on-ones," Dixon conceded, "but in the game, I'll lock you down."
Jimmie Ward has generated some buzz here in his hometown. He's small (5-10, 191) and could project as a slot cornerback. But Ward was fearless during the first three days of practices and was constantly around the ball.
"He's one of the few safeties in the draft that you're comfortable that can cover man," Mayock said. "I think he's got good range on the back end. He's way tougher than you would think given his size."
Ward said he hoped to add 10 more pounds by the draft. He used Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu, who started at safety for the Cardinals as a rookie last season, as an example of a smaller college prospect who transitioned to the pros.
"There could be a guy 6-3," Ward said, "but if he doesn't have football sense, what good is he?"