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.”

Todd Herremans recalls unforgettable draft-day call from Eagles

Todd Herremans recalls unforgettable draft-day call from Eagles

When the Eagles held training camp at Lehigh, the day the full team reported to camp was marked by a parade of flashy, high-end vehicles.

In 2009, however, offensive lineman Todd Herremans drove up in something else.

A black — actually matte black — van.

“It was like a crossover — Scooby Doo, A-Team," Herremans said on this week's edition of the Measured Takes podcast with Amy Fadool and Marshall Harris.

Why a black van? Herremans explained how his first couple vehicles were minivans, the second a hand-me-down from his parents, which he drove in college and as a rookie in the NFL.

“After I started to buy different cars, wasting my money — I always drove these mom vans — I was like, you know what, I’m going to make a manly van. Hence the black van," he said.

Herremans, who spent 10 years with the Eagles and last played in 2015 with the Colts, discussed several topics in the podcast (listen here), including how football players can benefit from using marijuana (speaking of the black van), and the NFL draft — and about how he became a Philadelphia Eagle.

The Eagles selected Herremans in the fourth round of the 2005 draft out of Division II Saginaw Valley State. 

“I went to a small Division II school in Michigan and had a pretty tight group of friends there. I went to a very small high school and had a pretty tight group of friends there too. Mostly family and a few other close friends.

“So when I was thinking that I was going to get drafted, it was pretty big news. We had all of my high school and college friends over to my parents’ farm. We just kinda hung out there, set up some tents and campers in the backyard, and hung out and watched the draft and partied. Had a keg. Might have smoked a pig. It was a good time. 

"We thought that we were going to get picked on the first day. For some reason. Because that was rounds one through three back then. Maybe I was being a little overambitious, but I thought that some of the coaches that I had talked to while I was traveling around were telling me, ‘two or three — it looks good for you. If you’re there, we’re going to take you.’ I’m like OK, perfect. 

"We’re sitting there, and after the draft ended that day, we’re all feeling pretty good, but a little let down. Like ah, didn’t happen, oh well. But I’ve got all my friends over, might as well go to the bar! So we went to the local watering hole and just got into it. We were up late, and then the next day when the draft started, we were all just laying around, like hungover, couldn’t even know what was going on. Half awake. My phone rang. 

"So I jumped up and I went over and I answered it. I think it was (then Eagles general manager) Tom Heckert. (He said) 'Hey Todd, Tom Heckert, Philadelphia Eagles. Hang in there, I think we’re going to trade up for you right here.' I was like oh — hungover — like huh, that sounds good. 

"It just happened. He goes, ‘Welcome to the Philadelphia Eagles.’ I was like, oh OK cool. (He goes) ‘Here’s (offensive line coach) Juan Castillo.’ So I don’t even get to talk to my family or anything. I look in the room. It’s on the TV. Everyone is going nuts and (Todd impersonates Castillo) Juan’s like, ‘Hey, hey Todd how you doing? You got a second?’ Anything Coach, I just got drafted! 

"So I got into the next room away from everybody cheering and popping champagne and everything — and install offense for the next 40 minutes with Juan Castillo. Then he’s like, hey sounds like you’ve got your stuff together, you’ve got a good handle on this, go enjoy this time with your family and we’ll see you in a little bit. So when I meet up with my family, nobody’s hungover anymore, my family and friends — they’re all drunk again. 

That's odd, because those are normally perfunctory phone calls that last a couple minutes at the most.

“I think they are,” Herremans said.

But not this one.

“Juan’s a special guy," Herremans said. "Because Juan was a Division II guy (Texas A&M Kingsville), and he’s drafting me, a Division II player, I think we had an immediate connection in just the way we got along. I respected him. He respected me. Both hard workers. And we just clicked. So I don’t know, he know I wold stick on the phone with him for 40 minutes because I was from a Division II school, and he knew it would be an uphill climb for me.”

Listen to the rest of the podcast and subscribe to Measured Takes.

Ron Jaworski: Carson Wentz shouldn't 'have any input' in Eagles' 2017 NFL draft

Ron Jaworski: Carson Wentz shouldn't 'have any input' in Eagles' 2017 NFL draft

Should the Eagles give Carson Wentz a say in who they take in the draft?

He is the future of the franchise after all.

"If there's any player on our roster that has insight into a guy in free agency or the draft, it's part of our information gathering," Eagles vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said last Thursday.

So the Eagles will at least listen to Wentz — and others — about certain prospects. The second-year QB got a firsthand look at a few receiving prospects during offseason workouts. 

However, former Eagles quarterback and ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski thinks it would be a "mistake" to give Wentz any input into the team's draft decision-making. 

"I don't think the quarterback should have any input in the draft," Jaworski said Tuesday. "Plain and simple. The quarterback should quarterback his football team. I know he'll be a teammate, but the Eagles — like every other team in this league — do extensive scouting. They know what they're doing, they'll select the player they believe is the best player."

Jaws would know -- he made that very mistake once.

"I had someone ask me a question back in 1978 or '79," Jaworski said. "They said, 'Hey Jaws, what do you think the Eagles need?' And I said we could probably improve our wide receiver position. 

"Oh, by the way, Harold Carmichael is one of our wide receivers, the next time I saw him he said, 'Hey, what are you talking about?' So it was a mistake, and I apologized to Harold and that was the last comment I ever made about the draft and my teammates. So I think players ought to shut up and let the front office make those decisions."

To be fair, Carmichael held a little more weight in his day than Nelson Agholor or Dorial Green-Beckham do now. 

Jaworski went on to tell a wild story of his own draft day in 1973 (watch video here), and also made the case for the Eagles to stock up on cornerbacks in the draft (watch video here).