The Philadelphia Eagles gambled and lost when they allowed Brian Dawkins to walk following the '08 season. An organization that had the reputation of knowing when to fold'em with veteran stars was exposed at Dawkins' old position in '09, which helped contribute to a first-round exit in the playoffs.
The Eagles responded by selecting free safety Nate Allen with the 37th overall pick in the draft. No matter what we heard about former Colts cornerback Marlin Jackson, this was Allen's starting job to lose from the start. Oh, and that 37th pick just happened to be the compensation from the Washington Redskins in the historic Donovan McNabb trade.
Fortunately for the Eagles, Allen seemed almost amused by all the McNabb talk. He quickly bought into defensive coordinator Sean McDermott's philosophy that he was "1/11th" of the defense and didn't need to be a hero.
Allen, the former University of South Florida star who grew up in the Land of Deion Sanders (Fort Myers), has quickly carved out his own reputation as a playmaker in the Eagles defense. He was named the NFC's Defensive Rookie of the Month for September and he now has three interceptions through only five games. The last Eagles rookie to have three interceptions in a season was none other than Dawkins in 1996. And to thicken the plot, Allen intercepted McNabb in the second half of the Eagles' loss.
"I didn't really think about it when we were on the field," said Allen. "But when I got to the locker room and the media started talking about it, it was pretty cool."
Everything about this former high school quarterback seems pretty cool. He looked the part of an NFL starter from his first day on campus. He told me via phone Thursday that being baptized by fire against a loaded Green Bay Packers offense in Week 1 helped speed the maturation process.
"Seeing Aaron Rodgers, [Greg] Jennings, Jermichael Finley and Donald Driver on the same field was one of those early wake-up calls," said Allen. "These are some of the top guys in the league we're talking about."
Allen has never met or talked to Dawkins, but he's studied him for years. Deion Sanders, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith and Dawkins were his favorite NFL players. And when asked what he liked about Dawkins' game, Allen sounded like a kid.
"I can't remember which game, but Dawkins picked up a receiver and suplexed him on the sideline," said Allen. "And when they were playing the Giants one time, he dove to tackle a receiver on the sideline and it looked like he was flying. He did a lot of things like that. He was a beast."
For the record, I think Allen was referring to a suplex that Dawkins put on former Redskins receiver James Thrash based on my exhaustive Google research. Eagles fans are hoping Allen can carry on that tradition. Veteran safety Quintin Mikell was asked to do too much last season while lining up next to rookies. You can tell that he's much more comfortable this season.
"He's been my guy," Allen said of Mikell. "He always has the answer when something comes up, and he's made this transition so much easier."
Allen's teammates at South Florida called him "Golden Boy" because he was one of the only players who avoided the fiery head coach Jim Leavitt's ire (Leavitt was eventually fired for allegedly striking a player). I don't think Allen's reached that status with Andy Reid, but he might be headed that way.
"They said I was the coach's favorite," Allen said sheepishly. "I thought I got my fair share of criticism, but my teammates didn't agree with me."
Allen attributes his maturity to his parents, Jackie and Darlene Allen. Jackie, 6-8 according to his son, played professional basketball in France and now coaches basketball and heads up security at a middle school in Fort Myers. Darlene is a business and typing teacher at Allen's alma mater, Cape Coral High School.
"I was raised in a Christian home and I was taught to put the Lord first in everything," said Allen. "They told me to know what my priorities were from an early age."
Allen writes his favorite Bible verse, Philippians 4:13, on his wrist tape before every game. But Allen actually carries two good books with him on road trips. Folks in the Eagles organization have said it's almost comical how often Allen studies his playbook.
"I'd go back to my room during training camp at 9 [p.m.] or 9:30 and try to study until 11," he said. "It's pretty remarkable how complex it is compared to what we did in college, so I needed to put in the time."
And so far, final exams are going pretty well.