Since Brian Dawkins departed after the 2008 season, the Eagles have been in a never ending quest to find stability at the safety position. The team has had six different players start more than 8 games a season since 2009, the only two year consistency of starters was the overmatched duo of Kurt Coleman and Nate Allen during the Juan Castillo experiment. Since 2009, the Eagles have drafted four, signed four (not counting the failed attempts to revive OJ Atogwe and Marlon Jackson) and traded for another safety in an attempt to find a solution.
The 2015 season will be no different, the team will see a seventh new starter in seven years. They attempted to sign Devin McCourty, offering him more than he took to stay in New England. When that failed the Eagles were apparently out of ideas. They showed no interest in veterans such as Rahim Moore, Antrel Rolle or in bringing back Nate Allen. Nor did they draft a "pure" safety, though cornerbacks Eric Rowe and Randall Evans may have a long term future in the NFL there.
Not until weeks before the beginning of OTAs did the team finally address the void opposite Malcolm Jenkins by asking newly signed Walter Thurmond III to switch from corner to safety. This brings a new kind of uncertainty to the already turbulent position: can he even play the position?
Thurmond will join Malcolm Jenkins, who played exactly as advertised, as a corner turned safety. The obvious advantage here is that as a good corner, in pass coverage Thurmond is easily Nate Allen’s superior. However against bigger WRs Thurmond has been inconsistent, which doesn’t bode well if he is asked to cover tight ends.
With the Eagles playing Cover 1 and Cover 3 on a vast majority of plays, which Seattle also does, Thurmond will alternate with Jenkins playing deep and in the slot. As a deep defender, Thurmond has no in-game experience, by his own admission he has very little experience during practice at it. It is impossible to evaluate him in this role. In the slot though, he has plenty of experience. From the slot he has shown good play recognition and explosiveness.
The Eagles played much more press in 2014, and that should continue in 2015.
And as a tackler, he’s shown good ability in the open field as well.
This does not bode well for Brandon Boykin. The Eagles prefer to stay in base vs three wide receivers in certain situations. With three wide receivers vs base, a defense has an advantage against the run with the front seven against six blockers (five offensive lineman and a tight end). They also have, in theory, an advantage in the secondary vs the run, as safeties tend to be better at pursuit and tackling than wide receivers are at blocking. If the offense chooses to pass, a team like the Eagles feels very comfortable with having a former cornerback in coverage against a wide receiver. With two, they’ll be even more likely to play it.
This is neither unique to the Eagles, many teams do this situationally, nor is it new, the philosophical choice to stay in base more was actually made midway through the 2013 season. Through the first seven weeks of the season, Boykin had played in 66% of the Eagles snaps. That is a little inflated by his filling in for an injured Bradley Fletcher in Week 2, taking that game out of the equation he played in 60.3% of snaps. But then the coaching staff made a number of changes throughout the second half of the season including reducing his playing time. For the remainder of the season he played only 41.6% of the time. During this time, the defense gave up fewer points and yards per game and created more turnovers, ending the season 7-3 after a 3-4 start. This lack of playing time continued into 2014, where Boykin played just 42.7% of snaps, a nearly identical amount as the second half of 2013.
It is difficult to assess how Walter Thurmond will perform as a safety. In some aspects he has no experience. In others he is quite good, which we should expect, he was a good slot corner and playing slot has many translatable skills, which is one reason why the Eagles feel he can play the position. But no one can say for sure at this point. Considering he is new to the position, being an adequate safety is a reasonable expectation. Considering the never ending quest to find stability at safety and in the secondary in general, being adequate isn't good enough for the Eagles.