Eagles’ Rodney McLeod Talks Malcolm Jenkins’ Leadership & ‘Filling Those Shoes’

Rodney McLeod

Getty Rodney McLeod signed a two-year deal with the Eagles to remain their starting strong safety.

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz splashed waves last week when he talked about “competition” at the strong safety spot.

Jalen Mills had entered training camp as the assumed starter there. Not so fast, warned Schwartz — although the coach did declare the converted cornerback the early front-runner to win the job. He called Mills a “good leader for us” and admitted he checked a lot of boxes. Still, no one is guaranteed anything in the NFL and veteran safety Rodney McLeod — Mills’ presumed partner on the backend — pounded home that point.

“I think it puts him [Mills] in the driver’s seat just because of his play over the past year, right?,” McLeod told reporters on Thursday. “Although he is making a position switch, I think he will thrive in this position … but at the end of the day, when we get out on that field, we’re all going to be competing for spots, myself included.”

Right now, the Eagles’ safety depth chart looks like this: McLeod, at free safety; Mills, at strong safety — and then versatile veteran Will Parks and exciting young rookie K’Von Wallace backing them up. The latter kid has caught his eye early in camp.

“He’s a guy that comes to work every day and that’s what you want to see right now,” McLeod said of Wallace. “He’s got to earn his stripes, got to earn that jersey each and every day, and I think he’s taking the right steps to do that.”

But McLeod predictably raved about the entire group, including Marcus Epps and Rudy Ford plus heaping an inordinate amount of praise on undrafted rookie free agent Grayland Arnold.

“It’s a talented group, even like Grayland Arnold, based on seeing him so far and go through the cornerback list as well,” McLeod said. “It’s a room full of depth and talented guys, and hungry guys, too. Guys that are willing to compete and that’s what we got to do. We got to create that culture and bring out the best in all of us.”

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McLeod & Mills Worked Out Individually Before Camp

Considering all the change in the Eagles’ secondary, McLeod and Mills decided to meet individually before training camp started. The two safeties got together and watched game film, along with going over all the communication calls and hand signals. In the absence of Malcolm Jenkins, McLeod and Mills are being counted on to “set the standard.”

“The hardest part for him is not necessarily defense, right? He knows the schematics,” McLeod said. “But it’s now lining up in a different spot so it’s now him understanding and grasping, Why do I need to have my eyes here? How are you seeing things? I believe the chemistry, man, is going to be easier than a lot of people think.”

The idea to talk shop was spear-headed by Mills, who texted McLeod and asked if they could take a fine-tooth comb to the full 16-game schedule. Mills wanted to make sure he knew and understood the verbiage on the backend.

“I really wanted to just hear the way he communicated,” Mills said. “I told him I didn’t want to change up anything that he did because he’s been successful at that spot. I know the defense, just wanted to get the exact verbiage that he may have been using on the backend.”

Mills played safety during his final two years at LSU so the position isn’t foreign to him. In fact, he admitted he “caught an interception” on his first or second play at the position in college. However, the Eagles are expecting a lot of things to bounce their way during an abbreviated camp due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Philadelphia has a new defensive backs coach, in Marquand Manuel, as well as a completely revamped secondary, highlighted by the arrival of cornerbacks Darius Slay and Nickell Robey-Coleman. They need to get on the same page, in the quickest way possible.

“I’m excited about what we can do,” McLeod said. “I think we have a very versatile group, guys that can line up anywhere whether it’s man or zone.”

McLeod Stepping Into Stronger Leadership Role

Jenkins was the undisputed leader on defense, something on vivid display last year after the Orlando Scandrick fiasco. But Jenkins bolted for New Orleans and left some pretty big cleats to fill. No worries, McLeod is ready to try them on.

“I think it will grow,” McLeod said of his leadership role. “When I came here in 2016, it was evident that Malcolm was that guy, that vocal leader, that the team rallied behind. And I’m looking to fill his shoes but do it in my own way because I am my own person, and we lead very differently. I’m excited for this upcoming season to step into this new role and fill those shoes and lead this team to the promised land.”

The 30-year-old spent the first four years of his career with the Rams before landing in the Eagles’ nest in 2016. In his first few seasons in Philly, McLeod was feeling his way around the locker room and chose to lead more by example and action, rather than by jumping up on the soapbox.

“I think, honestly, I was always considered a leader, just in a different facet before,” McLeod said. “You know, I came in here in 2016 and Malcolm was the leader this team needed and followed and I found a different way to lead, by actions, and playing my role as needed.”

After the franchise inked him to a two-year contract in the offseason worth an estimated $8.65 million, per Spotrac … well, it’s probably time to mature as a leader. McLeod has been vocal off the field, in terms of his charity work and activism related to Black Lives Matter. Now he’s looking to share that voice in the defensive huddle.

“Now with the absence of Malcolm, I will be a lot more vocal, particularly in the defensive backfield, and on the team,” McLeod said. “When another leader leaves, that calls on other guys to step up to the plate and become leaders and earn that respect as well. I’m excited to see who it is. We’ll need a few of those guys this year if we want to get to our goal.”

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