Eagles quietly trying to upgrade special teams

usa-roseman-ap-kelly-eagles.jpg

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.”

Report: Eagles expected to hire Mike Groh as receivers coach

Report: Eagles expected to hire Mike Groh as receivers coach

It look like the Eagles have found their replacement for Greg Lewis.

According to ESPN's Adam Caplan, the Eagles are expected to hire Rams receivers/passing game coordinator Mike Groh.

The news that the Eagles fired Lewis came out on Jan. 9 and the team has been looking for a replacement. They reportedly interviewed Groh and Bills receivers coach Sanjay Lal.

Groh, 45, spent the 2016 season with the Rams after three years as the Bears' receivers coach. Groh is available because the Rams switched head coaches, bringing in Sean McVay.

Before coming to the NFL, Groh was a longtime coach at the college level. He is the son of former Virginia head coach Al Groh and eventually became an offensive coordinator under his father before bouncing from Alabama to Louisville and then back to Alabama before heading to the NFL. 

Groh was actually the quarterback at Virginia in the 90s before his father ever coached there. Groh's first coaching job was under his father as assistant coach with the Jets in 2000, when Al Groh was named their head coach for the season. 

If the Eagles are looking to sign a big-name free agent at wide receiver, there could be a reunion of sorts in Philly. During his four seasons as an NFL receivers coach, Groh has worked with Alshon Jeffery and Kenny Britt, who are two of the top receivers who will be available.

The Eagles started their season with a first-round pick, two second-round picks and a third-round pick at wide receiver, but their unit was one of the worst in the NFL. Jordan Matthews was consistent, but tight end Zach Ertz was the team's leading receiver.

It's unlikely Groh will have the same unit to work with as Lewis did in 2016, but it is likely Groh will be expected to get more out of his group in 2017.

Eagles Stay or Go Part 6: Taylor Hart to Donnie Jones

Eagles Stay or Go Part 6: Taylor Hart to Donnie Jones

In the sixth of our 12-part offseason series examining the future of the Eagles, Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro give their opinions on who will be and who won't be on the roster in 2017. We go alphabetically — Part 6 is Hart to Jones.

Taylor Hart

Roob: No matter how hard the Eagles try, they just can't get rid of Taylor Hart. Chip Kelly drafted Hart in the fifth round in 2014 and then Hart began last season with Kelly in San Francisco before reappearing here later in the season. Hart is going into his fourth NFL season and has 15 games, 12 tackles and no sacks to show for it. He turns 26 next month and has never shown any signs of being a guy who can contribute in a 4-3 defense. I’m going to say he goes, but don't be surprised if he finds his way back onto the roster at some point. 

Verdict: GOES

Dave: Hart was with the Eagles last training camp but cut him on Sept. 4 and he was claimed by the 49ers and Chip Kelly. Then when the Niners cut him, the Eagles claimed him back and he spent the rest of the season watching the Eagles play football. He was inactive in all but the last game and in that one he didn’t play. Hart is a former fifth-round pick who just fits better in a 3-4. The Eagles already played undrafted rookie Destiny Vaeao over him, so it’s time to set him free. 

Verdict: GOES

Jordan Hicks
Cap hit: $796K

Roob: Whenever you blast Chip for getting rid of Shady, DeSean and Jeremy Maclin, you have to mention that he did draft Jordan Hicks in the third round. Hicks, in just 24 games, has become one of the most productive playmaking linebackers in Eagles history. With seven interceptions, he already has the 11th-most interceptions in franchise history by a linebacker, and he led all NFL linebackers with five INTs this past season. Only four linebackers in NFL history have had more interceptions in their first two seasons – Hall of Famer Jack Ham is one of them. But Hicks is more than a ballhawk. He’s a smart, heady linebacker who is stout at the point of attack and is already developing into a terrific locker room leader as well. The future is certainly bright for Hicks.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: He just finished his second year in the NFL, but Hicks is quickly becoming one of the biggest playmaking linebackers in the league. Through the first 24 games of his career, he has seven interceptions. In his first two years, he has 7 INTs, 4 FRs, 1 FF. He’s the fifth player in NFL history to do that in his first two seasons and he’s the only linebacker. That said, Hicks needs to get better against the run and he knows it. Now that he won’t have an injury to heal from this offseason, he plans on hitting the weight room to get stronger and better at stopping the run. He looks like a cornerstone of the franchise. 

Verdict: STAYS

Malcolm Jenkins
Cap hit: $7.5M

Roob: Jenkins had another good year in his third season with the Eagles, although not quite up to his Pro Bowl level of 2015. Jenkins, who turns 30 late next season, is on the books for another four years with some pretty high cap figures — $7.5 million in 2017, then $10 million, $9.75 million and $9.25 million. But as long as Jenkins continues to play at a high level, I don’t see him going anywhere until after the 2018 season at the earliest, when he would count just $3 million in dead money if he’s released. But Jenkins is a guy you'd like to see finish his career in Philly. Hope that happens. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: It’s hard to quantify just how much Jenkins means to the Eagles or how much he’s worth. But it’s a lot. The last two seasons have been the best of his career and he’s shown no signs of slowing down. The best Jenkins stat is this: He’s missed just eight defensive snaps since arriving in 2013. Unreal. If the Eagles chose to play him at cornerback last year, he would have probably been their best one. 

Verdict: STAYS

Lane Johnson
Cap hit: $10M

Roob: If he goes, it’ll be because of a third positive drug test. Johnson’s play in the six games he was available to the Eagles was at an All-Pro level. But after two positive tests for banned substances and suspensions of four games in 2014 and 10 games in 2016, he’s now one positive test away from a two-year ban that would essentially end his Eagles career. My gut feeling is Johnson has learned his lesson and won’t take any more chances. That he understands what’s at stake here and isn’t going to risk his career by taking a supplement that hasn’t been pre-tested and cleared. Obviously there are other reasons the Eagles were 5-1 when Johnson played. Those five wins included games against the hapless Browns and Bears and a win against a Cowboys team that wasn’t trying to win. But that said, Johnson’s value is clear. He's a beast. It’s up to Johnson whether he becomes a Pro Bowl offensive tackle or a casualty of the NFL’s substance abuse regulations. I can’t imagine he’ll make the same mistake again.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: A lot was made about Johnson’s suspension voiding the guaranteed portion of his contract. And for a week or so, a bunch of fans were calling into talk radio saying the Eagles should cut him. That was laughable. Johnson is still the Eagles’ best offensive player and as long as he stays on the field and plays the way he did in 2016, he’s going to make most of the money in his contract. He obviously deserves plenty of blame for the way last season went, but he’s a big piece of the future. One more suspension and his career is basically over, so the Eagles just have to hope he doesn’t ruin everything.  

Verdict: STAYS

Marcus Johnson

Roob: Johnson is an interesting guy. Ran a 4.37 so he has wheels, but he didn’t have much of a career at Texas. Then again, Texas didn’t have a legit quarterback while he was there so maybe there’s a lot of untapped potential. The Eagles are so desperate for help at wide receiver they’ll take a good long look at everybody on the roster, even a guy who bounced off and on the practice squad last year. This Longhorn is a longshot to make the roster, but then again, if he catches the football consistently in training camp he’ll give himself a fighting chance.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: The receiver was with the Eagles during training camp and flashed some before getting hurt. He joined the practice squad during the season and was there at season’s end. He’ll be brought to camp but is a longshot to make the roster. 

Verdict: GOES

Donnie Jones
Cap hit: $1.25M

Roob: At 36 years old, the greatest punter in Eagles history (sorry Mat McBriar) showed no signs of slowing down. In his 13th NFL season, Jones averaged 45.8 yards per punt with a 40.7 net – both above his career highs. The most amazing thing about Jones is his knack for dropping punts inside the 20 without hitting very many touchbacks. He had 21 inside the 20 this year with just six touchbacks, and in four seasons with the Eagles he has 117 inside the 20 with just 26 touchbacks. When you don’t have an explosive offense, field position is critical, and Jones is a human field position flipping machine. The Eagles signed him to a three-year extension this year, and he’s now under contract through 2019.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: At times during the last two seasons, Jones has looked like the offense’s best weapon. That’s not a good sign for the offense, but it is for Jones. He’s already the best punter in team history. He’ll be 37 by the time the 2017 season starts, but he just signed a contract and will be the team’s punter for at least a couple more years if everything goes to plan. 

Verdict: STAYS