Nate Allen picked up his career from shambles last year. He actually resembled an NFL safety after two prior seasons of looking lost.
Now he’ll get the chance to keep rebuilding his career for a second season under Chip Kelly.
Allen, who became a free agent on March 11, signed a one-year deal Monday to stay in Philadelphia. He spent just six days on the open market and said some other teams showed interest, but he wanted to return to the place where his career regrouped after nearly bottoming out.
“I was just playing the waiting game,” Allen said “I wasn’t trying to get all worked up and stressed out about free agency. I just kind of sat back and let everything fall into place. At the end of day, I knew my heart was in Philly and this was the place I wanted to be.”
Signs indicate that Allen, who started all 16 games last season for the first time in his career, will have a chance to start opposite newcomer Malcolm Jenkins when the season opens in September. Allen’s contract is for $2 million, with another $1 million in playing-time incentives, according to a league source.
The starting job opposite Jenkins will likely be a summer-long competition between Allen and second-year pro Earl Wolff, who started six games last year. Free-agent signing Chris Maragos could be a dark horse candidate if he plays really well at camp.
The fifth safety is Keelan Johnson, who was signed off the practice squad and played two games last season on special teams.
“Earl is heck of a safety,” Allen said. “He had a great year last year for a rooke. It was unfortunate he had the knee injury. Earl is a lot better now and he’s improving and he’s a great guy. We know he’s going to come in and want to play.”
But Allen also sees the improvement in his own game and the potential to carry over his consistency from last year and keep emerging under coordinator Bill Davis. For his first four years, Allen played for four different defensive coordinators (Sean McDermott, Juan Castillo, Todd Bowles and Davis).
This year will be his first in the same system and scheme as the prior year. (Castillo was fired halfway through his second season and the Eagles changed schemes under Bowles.)
“It’s nice to have some stability like that,” Allen said. “I’m comfortable in the scheme and comfortable in the system and I like what Coach Davis doing and where this team is headed. I think it’s going to be a great year for us. I’m excited.”
Allen, a 2010 second-round pick, set a career high last year with 94 tackles, third on the defense. He returned an interception 43 yards, a career best, and also had his first sack since his rookie season.
The Eagles are interested in seeing if Allen can take another big step in his development.
“You saw the comfort level in his play improve and he now knows what is expected from Coach Kelly, Coach Davis and the rest of the coaching staff,” general manager Howie Roseman said. “He has played under four defensive coordinators during his career so we believe the stability will help him continue to grow as a player.”
If Allen can improve even slightly, and if Jenkins is an upgrade over Patrick Chung, the Eagles should be better in pass defense than last year’s squad, which finished as the NFL’s worst (4,636 yards allowed).
Along with re-signing Allen and bringing in Jenkins and Maragos, the Eagles also signed free-agent cornerback Nolan Carroll, who’s expected to push Bradley Fletcher for a starting job.
“I think it was one of my better years,” Allen said. “I was able to improve last year. We had a lot of great chemistry on the defensive side of the ball. Toward the middle of the season we were able to put it all together and just keep getting better and better.”
For most of his career, Allen was hardly the playmaker the Eagles envisioned when they picked him 37th overall in the 2010 draft with a second-round pick they received from the Redskins in exchange for Donovan McNabb.
He actually became the first player in team history to have three interceptions and two sacks in his first season, but Allen tore his patellar tendon 13 games into the season, an injury that sidetracked the direction of his career.
He wasn’t ready to start by the 2011 season opener and lost his job to Jarrad Page. Allen re-entered the starting lineup by Week 4 but struggled with tackling behind the team’s wide-nine defensive alignment.
His struggles carried into 2012 and he was benched for the last two games of the season. Some considered Allen a long shot to make the team last year in Kelly’s first season after the Eagles signed Chung and Kenny Phillips in the offseason.
But the injury-prone Phillips missed most of training camp and Allen was the next-most experienced safety on the team. He competed with Wolff, a fifth-round pick who was impressive at the spring camps, but held off the rookie and managed to start every game.
Allen didn’t make many splashy plays last year, but he cut down the number of negative plays he’d made the two previous years and emerged as one of the more consistent performers in a weak secondary.
Has he improved enough to hold off Wolff again?
“I won’t get too caught up in all that,” he said. “I’m just going to go out and play ball and do the same thing.”