Eagles quietly trying to upgrade special teams

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Eagles quietly trying to upgrade special teams

On offense, they ranked fourth in the NFL in scoring, just three points out of second. On defense, they went nine straight games allowing 21 or fewer points.

No wonder 2013 was such a turnaround season for the Eagles, going from 4-12 in Andy Reid’s final season to 10-6 and NFC East champs in Chip Kelly’s first.

Explosive on offense, promising on defense.

Which leaves only … pathetic on special teams.

So while the Eagles’ offseason was dominated by DeSean Jackson’s release, a free agency season absent of big names, Jason Peters’ new contract and a draft heavy in wide receivers and defense, the Eagles quietly have been trying to upgrade one of the NFL’s worst special teams units.

They didn’t land any big names during free agency -- Malcolm Jenkins was the biggest -- but the Eagles did add safety Chris Maragos, linebacker Bryan Braman and nickel corner Nolan Carroll, who are all being counted on to be special teams stalwarts.

They added Darren Sproles to punch up the offense, but he also has a strong track record in the return game.

They added some fast, physical players in the draft who should be contributors right away on special teams -- Jordan Matthews, Josh Huff, Jaylen Watkins and Ed Reynolds and probably even Marcus Smith.

They even brought in an undrafted free-agent placekicker to challenge one-time fourth-round pick Alex Henery.

And the Eagles hope it all adds up to a much improved special teams group.

“We hope so,” Kelly said. “I think it's been a big emphasis. The addition of Chris Maragos, Bryan Braman, guys like that. Nolan Carroll, outstanding special teams players. Bringing Darren in here was the one thing we really thought, besides being used as a running back and as a receiver coming out of the back field, I think his ability as a returner, I think that's huge.”

The Eagles were among the NFL’s worst on special teams a year ago -- 25th in kick return average, 27th in punt return average, 19th covering kicks and 20th in field goal accuracy.

According to Rick Gosselin’s famed annual special teams rankings that appear annually in the Dallas Morning News, which take into account 22 different special teams categories, the Eagles overall ranked 28th in the league in special teams efficiency, ahead of only the Raiders, Lions, Redskins and Panthers.

“It was a concerted effort to get bigger and faster on special teams,” general manager Howie Roseman said.

“I know just in kind of Phase Two [of the offseason workout program] you get an opportunity to see guys run down the field, and you see a guy like Bryan Braman.

"Our fans are going to love Bryan Braman. Bryan Braman, and I say this with all due respect, is out of his mind. He's 6-4 and he's 260 pounds and he's telling me that he can run like a 4.3 but he pulled his hamstring when he ran at the regional workout. I've got to believe him. He is like almost a freak of nature when he runs down.

“[Plus] Nolan Carroll, and you add them to Brandon Boykin and Maragos and then the guys we've gotten here [during the draft]. I think we've certainly upgraded the talent level, and I think that's one of the things that hurts your special teams is [when the] back end of the roster [isn’t] effective.”

For all that’s made about Kelly’s groundbreaking up-tempo offensive philosophy, he’s constantly talking about special teams.

Huff knows how important special teams is to Kelly. He played under him from 2010 through 2012.

“I played special teams a lot,” Huff said. “Coming from Oregon that’s all they preach: ‘If you want to get to the next level, you have to contribute on special teams.’

“I had my opportunity to contribute on special teams and I did everything I could to contribute on special teams. Special teams is a role on any team.”

It’s tough to find a move the Eagles made this year that wasn’t made with special teams in mind.

Whether it was the draft picks, free-agent acquisitions or even the decisions to part ways with core special teamers such as Colt Anderson and Kurt Coleman, everything was done with an eye on special teams.

“That was a real conscious decision that we had to upgrade really our coverage units in terms of how we were doing things,” Kelly said. “We felt like with Nolan Carroll, Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman, with some of these guys that we drafted that that's really going to help us.

“At times when we're looking at players, we have a dot on their tag so that the person with the dot is going to be a core special teams player. ...

“So far with the decisions that we're making, we're erring that way. If there are two guys that are equal and this guy's a better teams player, we're going to take the guy that's the better teams player.”

10 Eagles to watch during 2017 training camp

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10 Eagles to watch during 2017 training camp

The Eagles kick off their 2017 training camp this week for a season with higher expectations than a year ago. 

A big reason for that is because Carson Wentz is entering his second season after an up-and-down, yet promising, rookie campaign. We're not going to list him as a player to watch because we're all going to watch him anyway. 

Another big reason for optimism is plenty of newcomers. Many of them are listed. 

Here are 10 players to watch during Eagles training camp 2017: 

Nelson Agholor 
We mentioned the newcomers, but let's start with a guy who has been here for a couple of disappointing seasons. Agholor will probably never live up to his draft status, but now it's just about making him a decent NFL player. This spring, he was the best receiver on the field, which was undeniable as it was infuriating to fans. Because it just hasn't translated into games and until it does, no one will care much. But it's worth watching to see if he can continue his impressive offseason. Maybe this year, with a reduced role, he won't be a headcase. 

Derek Barnett
The first-round pick showed some impressive signs during the spring, especially when he beat Lane Johnson a few times 1-on-1. But now the pads go on and the real football begins. Barnett has a real chance to not just earn playing time but also earn a starting job during this training camp. 

Ron Brooks/Joe Walker
We cheated a little here by lumping these two together, but it kind of makes sense. Both are coming back from serious injuries, which is why we need to see what they can do. Walker tore his ACL during the preseason a year ago. Before he did, he was set to be the team's backup middle linebacker. It wasn't until his injury that the Eagles went out and signed Stephen Tulloch. And Brooks was playing OK as the Eagles' slot cornerback before his ruptured quad tendon in October. Jim Schwartz seems to really like him, but many folks have seemingly forgotten about Brooks this offseason. 

Timmy Jernigan
Of all the newcomers, Jernigan might be the most overlooked, but could also make the biggest impact. He's here with just one year left on his contract but will get a chance to put up some serious numbers while playing next to Fletcher Cox on the interior line. 

LeGarrette Blount
Blount reportedly has language written into his contract that gives him bonuses based on staying under 250 pounds. Even if he's under 250, Blount is still a big back, about 20 pounds heavier than rookie Corey Clement. Blount is up there in age and had a huge workload for the Patriots last season. How much does he have left? 

Rasul Douglas 
Of all the Eagles' rookies, Douglas might need to have the most immediate impact. The third-round pick might be thrust into a major role this season just because of the lack of talent at the cornerback position. He was impressive in the spring but is bound to have ups and downs as a rookie. 

Alshon Jeffery 
The Eagles actually have a real No. 1 receiver. Jeffery made some spectacular catches during the spring, but he and Wentz need to build their rapport, which they had extra time to do when the receivers went to North Dakota. We'll see how far along he and Wentz are soon enough. 

Donnel Pumphrey
It's pretty shocking to see how small Pumphrey looks without pads, especially standing next to Blount. How will the Eagles use the tiny running back? Will he be more of a receiver out of the backfield and in the slot? And can his body really hold up in the NFL? 

Isaac Seumalo 
Yeah, we're telling you an interior offensive lineman is a guy to watch. Seumalo has a real chance to beat out Allen Barbre for the starting left guard position. Either way, Seumalo figures into the Eagles' plans for the future as a guard or as the center who eventually takes over for Jason Kelce. 

Mack Hollins
Of the rookie receivers, Hollins was clearly more impressive this spring. I became convinced Hollins can play football in shorts and a helmet. Now, we'll get to see how he does when the pads go on. With his size/speed combo, he's certainly an intriguing prospect.

NFL Notes: As Cowboys prep for training camp, Jerry Jones backs Ezekiel Elliott again

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NFL Notes: As Cowboys prep for training camp, Jerry Jones backs Ezekiel Elliott again

OXNARD, Calif. -- Jerry Jones interjected some bad-boy anecdotes from his youth, smiled at the thought of life before social media and even asked a couple of questions himself Sunday at his annual training camp opener with reporters.

When the topic is the multitude of off-field issues confronting the Dallas Cowboys -- headlined by star running back Ezekiel Elliott -- their owner, president and general manager can dance with the best of them.

"I can give you the same old excuses -- young, aggressive, got a lot of energy," Jones said. "Hard to paint that picture of the days when it won't be this easy, they won't be as pretty and they won't have the money. Somehow you've got to paint the picture."

Elliott is still waiting for clearance from the NFL on a year-old domestic violence case that prosecutors didn't pursue. The NFL rushing leader last season as a rookie, Elliott didn't help himself with his involvement in a bar fight a week before the Cowboys flew to California for camp.

Jones reiterated his belief that Elliott wasn't guilty of domestic violence in a dispute with his ex-girlfriend last summer in Columbus, Ohio, where he starred for Ohio State. But the Dallas owner still wouldn't speculate on whether Elliott will get suspended.

The Cowboys will have two suspended defensive players when the season starts in pass rushers David Irving and Randy Gregory. Two more could be: cornerback Nolan Carroll (drunken-driving charge) and linebacker Damien Wilson (aggravated assault charges).

Receiver Dez Bryant was late to report at the team's practice facility in suburban Dallas on Friday, a day before he was on the team flight to California. Irving decided to stay in California rather than report in Texas, and running back Darren McFadden missed the charter flight (see full story).

Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald motivated by quest for championship
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Training camp is a drag at this point in Larry Fitzgerald's long and accomplished NFL career. Of course, the quest for the ring is the main reason the 14-year veteran continues to play.

The longtime Arizona Cardinals wide receiver isn't sure what his future holds as far as retirement.

"That's the only reason I'm playing at this point," Fitzgerald said Sunday, the second day of Cardinals training camp. "From a personal standpoint, things I've accomplished, they're fine. But the thing that you will say is out of your control because you're in a team sport is a championship."

Fitzgerald said he feels good, and when retirement comes there won't be a podium or tears because "that's not who I am."

Yet it is important to him to still be productive as a player when he decides to step away. Fitzgerald admitted it would be a struggle to accept a diminished role due to not being able to give 100 percent.

"The end is never really pretty for elite athletes. It never looks good. You watch Michael Jordan in a Washington Wizards uniform or see Tony Dorsett playing for the Denver Broncos. ... It's weird because you're used to seeing them at their most dominant stage," Fitzgerald said. "For me, I really want to do things at a high level and be able to walk away and still be someone who can play at a high level."

Fitzgerald has asked others who are closer to retirement or have retired about their thought process going into it. He's been doing that for the last few years, checking in with the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Tony Gonzalez.

For now, he still enjoys being around teammates and staff, asking questions in an effort to improve as a player and setting an example and providing leadership for young players (see full story).

Browns: Rookie Peppers signs, full class under contract
CLEVELAND -- Browns rookie defensive back Jabrill Peppers has signed and now Cleveland's entire draft class is under contract.

Peppers and the Browns had been haggling over guaranteed money on his four-year-deal, which is worth $10.3 million and includes a $5.6 million signing bonus.

The Browns chose Peppers -- one of Cleveland's three first-round selections -- with the No. 25 overall pick. The former Michigan standout played numerous positions for the Wolverines, but the Browns will try him at strong safety and as a kick returner.

Peppers may have been passed over by other teams after he had a diluted urine sample at the scouting combine. Peppers was placed in the first stage of the NFL's substance abuse policy, but he can be cleared from the program after 90 days if he has not positive tests.

Cleveland's rookies were scheduled to report to training camp Sunday night with the veterans arriving on Wednesday. The Browns will open their second training camp under coach Hue Jackson on Thursday.