As the Philadelphia Eagles prepare to open training camp on July 25, we examine whether the team is better or worse than last season at each position. We continue with special teams.
The Eagles have been struggling to uncover a decent kick-return specialist for ages now, seemingly since Brian Mitchell departed in ’02. Philadelphia has had exactly one kickoff returned for a touchdown in the 11 years since—Quintin Demps in ’08.
At least this year, the Birds have plenty of options. Last season, the club primarily used Damaris Johnson or Brandon Boykin in that role, with Brad Smith getting a look later on. As Reuben Frank reports for CSNPhilly.com, Johnson and Smith remain in the mix, along with Nolan Carroll, Josh Huff, Jeremy Maclin, Darren Sproles and Chris Polk.
If Chip Kelly can’t find a quality option in that group, I don’t even know.
We can probably rule out Johnson, who is a mistake waiting to happen every time he touches the ball. Otherwise, there is an interesting collection of seasoned returners and exciting, young athletes to pick from.
Now in their 30s, neither Smith nor Sproles possesses the burst they once did, but neither did Mitchell when he played in Philly. With six career kickoff returns for touchdown between the two of them, though, either would seemingly be reliable at the very least. Those would be my top options, although any of Carroll, Huff or Polk are all intriguing as well.
Roughly half of the Eagles’ moves during free agency were geared toward improving the special teams unit. Bryan Braman, an outside linebacker from the Houston Texans, was an alternate for the Pro Bowl in 2012. Safety Chris Maragos was a special teams ace for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
Between the two of them, they have zero starts on defense over a combined seven NFL seasons. They are purely role players who should give the Eagles a boost in the third phase.
In addition to Braman and Maragos, the Eagles also get linebacker Jason Phillips back from a torn ACL. Phillips was a free agent signing from the previous offseason in the same vein, and while he’s not a lock to make the roster this year, he represents another option to improve what was a suspect kick coverage unit last year.
On one hand, DeSean Jackson seemed to lose interest in returning punts awhile ago. He hasn’t taken one back for a touchdown since 2010—I remember more plays where he ran backwards and lost yards than quality returns since then—and the Eagles were actively trying to find a replacement the past two seasons.
That being said, I don’t see anybody on the Birds’ roster that I would rather have back there more than Jackson if it were one return with the game on the line. There is no doubt in my mind somebody like Sproles might be more competent on a kick-by-kick basis, but nobody with Jackson’s explosion and natural play-making ability.
Jackson average 5.6 yards on 31 returns over the past three seasons, which is pitiful. Game on the line, though, I want him back there.
Perhaps the most underrated free-agent signing by the Eagles last offseason, Jones’ clutch kicks flat out won them games.
In one key stretch, Jones won NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors in back-to-back games, pinning 11 of 14 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line with longs of 69 and 70. Jones wound up setting a franchise record with 33 punts down inside the 20. He only dumped five in the end zone for touchbacks.
Give some credit to his coverage team as well, particularly Brandon Boykin, for getting to a number of those balls. Jones clearly exhibited a bit of a magic touch, though, making the act of punting the ball away one area Eagles fans don’t have to worry about.
Jon Dorenbos is coming up on his ninth season as the Eagles’ long snapper. Can you remember an errant snap in all that time? No? Moving on.
I was hopeful a kicker from off the street could win a kicking competition in Philadelphia. That’s how little faith I have in Alex Henery. But if early reports from spring camps are any indication, the Eagles might be looking at another year of Henery handling the kicking duties.
Henery is said to be beating undrafted rookie Carey Spear—aka Murderleg—soundly, with the Inquirer’s Jeff McLane going so far as to describe the competition a “façade.”
Spear arrived in Philly to a surprising amount of fanfare. Then again, maybe that spoke more to feelings about Henery, who can’t be trusted on field goals from 50 yards out or to boom a kickoff into the end zone.
At least Spear could do the latter at Vanderbilt. His touchback percentage of 64.4 as a senior would’ve been good for fifth in the NFL in 2013.
That being said, Henery is apparently kicking the kid’s butt on field goals thus far, which should it continue going that way doesn’t bode well for Spear. Then again, if another veteran kicker were to suddenly become available in late August or early September, it might not bode well for either of them.
BETTER OR WORSE
Better. The kicking game is suspect, but it shouldn’t get worse, so let’s focus on where they’ve improved. The kick coverage unit could be better by leaps and bounds with two or three new faces, and somewhere on that roster there might be a legit kick returner. Given Chip Kelly’s emphasis on quality special teams, it’s reasonable to assume the unit will continue trending up.