As much as I value pre-draft evaluations, the prospect’s landing spot is a pivotal part of the process. Few talents can transcend any scheme and impact their team’s success. In fact, plenty of starters and contributors at the NFL level only fill certain roles and might not be considered a long term starter at that position. It is all about figuring out where a player wins and giving them a chance to succeed in that area. In this series I will take a look at prospects selected on the third day that could offer an immediate impact thanks to their strengths and situations. I will never call myself an expert on the coverages and schemes that are included, but I am working hard to learn, so feel free to (politely) point me in the right direction. With that said, I cannot recommend this defensive write-up by Jene Bramel enough.
Plenty has been made of Chip Kelly’s entrance into the NFL coaching ranks. Outside of the up-tempo offensive style, the finer points of his team’s philosophy are still relative unknowns at this point in the process. With Billy Davis set to run the defense, many have pegged the Eagles as a “3-4” team. While 4-3 and 3-4 are general blanket terms, not every three man front is created equal.
When Davis was with the Cardinals, he said this about the team’s defensive scheme: “Everybody puts us in that 3-4 category, but what we are is an ‘under front, a 4-3 ‘under’ defense. The ‘under’ is almost a 3-4. As 3-4 [defenses] go, it’s not really what we do here.”
As Davis explained, the Cardinals’ front seven most often resembled an under front (which is explained well here and here). The two obviously have their similarities but there are important distinctions, as those links discuss. Now, does that mean the Eagles will follow that same logic in 2013? No, but expect to see a variety of alignments in the front half of the team’s defense. Once again, it is tough to predict Kelly’s input on the general philosophy of that side of the ball, so this is can be termed an educated guess.
With that discussion focusing on the front seven, what should we expect from the Eagles coverage-wise? I can only guess based on the moves they have made throughout the offseason. Expect to see some zone concepts with Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, Brandon Boykin and Jordan Poyer, but a strict zone system is tough to universally conclude with Curtis Marsh in the picture. I do think, above all, Davis and Kelly will want strong tacklers in their defensive backfield. Basic, yes, but an important trait nonetheless.
Enter fifth-round rookie safety Earl Wolff, a prospect I ranked No. 85 overall prior to the draft. General Manager Howie Roseman has already said he expects Wolff to focus on special teams while learning the safety spot during his rookie year. Because of that, Wolff’s impact on the defense might not be immediate, but my expectations are a little higher. I think he showed the tools of a future starter while at N.C. State.
On the point of tackling, Wolff loves to throw his body around, especially when lining up his target on the edge. That same physicality can be seen when closing in coverage, extending his arms to disrupt the catch point and cause an incompletion. Despite those flashes of violence, Wolff also understands when a conservative angle is necessary, specifically when working as the last line of defense from a single high alignment. There are areas of improvement as a tackler, including not recognizing crack back or seal blocks to open the edge, but Wolff is willing and showed a controlled aggression when dipping under blocks or working through trash.
In coverage, Wolff lined up as a pure strong and free safety, showing pre-snap movement when getting in position for each. He will not be the type to press targets at the line of scrimmage, as Wolff tends to keep an arm’s length distance when forced to work in man coverage. There were times where this became an issue, as Wolff occasionally bit inside on multiple breaking routes or allowed a completion, albeit with minimal yards after the catch, when tight coverage could have prevented it.
His best work is in zone, since Wolff is very aware of his positioning in short to intermediate passing lanes. On numerous occasions I saw Wolff keep himself on a string and watch the quarterback’s eyes to stay in front of an intended receiver and force a second or third read. The Wolfpack safety’s lateral recovery speed is much better than when tested vertically, but Wolff understands the shortest distance between two spots is a straight-line and that is evident when he undercuts passes by locking on to the catch point.
The Eagles signed Patrick Chung to a three year deal, but there’s a reason he only played three snaps in the Patriots’ final two postseason games. He can be frustrating with his lack of awareness and positioning. Kenny Phillips is another big name at the position, but he has had trouble staying on the field and is only on a one year contract. Wolff is a physical and reliable tackler with awareness to disrupt throwing lanes in zone coverage. That might seem vague and somewhat minimal when discussing a potential starting safety, but as I stated before, we are kind of in the dark with the Eagles’ defensive scheme. As more information becomes available my expectations could change, but for now I would be surprised if Wolff’s career is mostly spent on special teams.