Eagles: How the safety duo of Harris and McLeod will excel in Gannon’s defense

The Philadelphia Eagles made several moves during the free agency period this offseason. Some may point to the recent signing of Ryan Kerrigan as the most notable, but acquiring safety Anthony Harris will likely prove to be the most valuable acquisition of the offseason — at least for 2021.

After being franchise tagged last year, Harris hit free agency looking to cash in. Coming off a year in which he failed to record an interception, after totaling nine over the previous two seasons combined, Harris didn’t have many takers. Howie Roseman swooped in and was able to snag the safety for just a one-year, $5 million deal.

It was a complete bargain for the Eagles. They needed to fill their hole at safety opposite of Rodney McLeod upon Jalen Mills joining the Patriots. Not only is Harris’ contract much cheaper than the one Mills signed in New England (four years, $24 million), he’s an immense upgrade over Mills, especially in Jonathan Gannon’s new defensive scheme.

Harris and McLeod have proven to be among the best coverage safeties in football in recent history. During his five years in Philly, McLeod has never had a PFF coverage grade under 70 in a season and he’s totaled nine interceptions during that time.

From 2018-’19, Harris was arguably the best coverage safety in the NFL. Per PFF, he had a 87.1 coverage grade in 2018 and a 91.6 mark the following year. While Harris’ interception numbers dropped off last season, he did record a career-high in tackles with 104.

Technically, McLeod and Harris both play the free safety position. In Jim Schwartz’s system, the distinction between free and strong safety was more defined than it will be in Gannon’s defense. Schwartz routinely put his corners on an island and played with one deep safety on the backend. Gannon, on the other hand, will provide his corners with much more help over the top with his two-safety, cover 2 man looks.

Each safety position is essentially interchangeable in this style of defense, with responsibilities mostly staying the same for each side of the field.

A lot has been made about how subpar the Eagles cornerback position is entering this season. Darius Slay is a proven No. 1 CB, but the team lacks the adequate talent to fill the No. 2 spot on the opposite side. Playing more two-safety looks should alleviate some of the pressure on the outside corners, and it’ll allow them to play a bit more aggressively, which in turn should cause more turnovers.

The Eagles have been one of the worst teams in the NFL at causing turnovers during the Schwartz era. Last season, they were dead last in the league in interceptions. Backup safety Marcus Epps led the team in INTs with two — that pretty much tells you everything you need to know. The team has ranked 22nd or worse in interceptions since 2018, recording just 29 during that time.

While the defensive philosophy change alone should help in this department a bit, without suitable coverage safeties on the backend, the aggressiveness would back-fire more often than it would pay off. Adding a safety of Harris’ caliber was pivotal for this defensive change to flourish in year one.

McLeod’s health is also very important for this defense, but when speaking with reporters, he stated that he intends to be ready by Week 1. “That is my goal,” said the veteran safety. “I want to be available for my team. Not only for a game but for all 17 [games]. That’s my motivation. I have all intentions to be there Week 1.”

It’s completely fair to question just how good this pass defense can be given the glaring hole at the No. 2 cornerback spot — I’ve done so every chance I’ve had this offseason. But the veteran safety duo of Harris and McLeod, along with Gannon’s more corner-friendly defensive scheme, it may not be as disastrous as some expect it to be.

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