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Howie Roseman has put a lot of time into reconstructing the Eagles defense this offseason. From the first move of free agency, signing pass rusher Haason Reddick, to the most recent transaction, signing corner James Bradberry to a one-year deal, Howie’s focus on the defensive side of the ball has been clear.
He’s added pieces at every level of Jonathan Gannon’s group; nearly every position has gotten some love from the front office this year. With the exception of the safety position. A position that, on paper, is worse than it was last season.
Rodney McLeod will no longer roam the backend of the Eagles defense, leaving Marcus Epps and Anthony Harris as the presumed starters at safety. We already know what Harris brings to the table. A reliable veteran who will provide serviceable play. Epps, on the other hand, is a bit of a question mark.
Epps has steadily progressed ever since joining the Eagles in 2019. Here’s a snap breakdown over the past three years:
- 2019 — 98 defensive snaps, 22% snap share
- 2020 — 364 defensive snaps, 38% snap share
- 2021 — 505 defensive snaps, 48% snap share
In the latter half of 2021, Gannon was essentially forced to rotate his safeties because 1.) McLeod was starting to show his age, and 2.) Epps was playing so well it was becoming hard to justify not playing him.
Per Pro Football Focus, Epps finished the year as the 18th-highest ranked safety in the league, earning a PFF defensive grade of 74.6 by season’s end. That was a better mark than both McLeod and Harris, who finished the season as the 43rd and 53rd ranked safeties respectively.
Epps was a standout against the run, totaling 66 combined tackles and 11 defensive stops (a PFF metric for tackles that constitutes a failure for the offense). He earned a PFF run defense grade of 88.9 in 2021, second-highest among 88 qualifying safety. Due to Epps’ effectiveness against the run, it’s fair to assume he’s primarily a box safety. In 2021, he lined up primarily as a free safety, logging 324 snaps from that alignment. He spent 86 snaps in the box and 87 in the nickel.
Gannon and Co. seems to believe Epps has the ability to be a true free safety, and there is some evidence to back that up. Although his coverage numbers weren’t great last season (78.6 completion percentage, 117.3 passer rating allowed when targeted), Epps was competent as a coverage safety in 2020. That season, Epps actually finished the year with a higher PFF coverage grade than run defense grade, which in turn led to a higher overall defensive grade in 2020, 75.1. Epps allowed a completion percentage of 81, a passer rating of 72.7, and recorded two interceptions when targeted in 2020.
These numbers, along with Gannon’s willingness to play Epps as a deep safety, seems to indicate that the Eagles feel comfortable with Epps as the starter heading into 2022. But as we’ve heard throughout the offseason, Howie was considering a number of safeties in free agency and on the trade market. They were in on the Marcus Williams sweepstakes before he signed with Baltimore, and they were reportedly a finalist to acquire Tyrann Mathieu before he joined his hometown Saints just a few weeks ago.
That could point to Howie just doing his due diligence at the position. They lost a starter in free agency, so Howie attempted to replace the vacancy. Or, they have legitimate questions about Epps’ ability to be a full-time starter. The answer likely lies somewhere in the middle.
Making a move to bring in a safety is still on the table. We’ve discussed a few of the possibilities, like Jessie Bates and Chuck Clark. If no moves are made, Eagles fans should feel OK with Epps getting a shot at the starting job.
Let me put it this way: Before the Bradberry signing, would you have rather banked on Zech McPhearson/Tay Gowan to start at the CB2 spot, or Epps at safety?
If Howie only had one more move up his sleeve and had to choose between safety and corner — which may be the case here — going with a corner was the right move.
Epps has done enough in his limited playing time to warrant an opportunity to start. If he’s able to take another step in his development this season, Epps could stake his claim to the starting safety spot for years to come.