Eagles' special teams unit ranked best in NFL for second time in 3 years

Eagles' special teams unit ranked best in NFL for second time in 3 years

For another season in 2016, the Eagles' offense and defense were at times up and down. 

Special teams never wavered. 

Dave Fipp's unit has been among the best since his arrival to Philadelphia in 2013. In 2016, his unit was the very best, according to Rick Gosselin's annual rankings in the Dallas Morning News. This is the second time in three years the Eagles have earned the top spot. 

The Eagles had the best kickoff starting position at the 27.2-yard and the best opponent kickoff starting position at the 22.7-yard line in 2016. They led the league with two kick return touchdowns and had the second-best punt return average of 12.9. 

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On top of it all, kicker Caleb Sturgis made 35 field goals, a career-high and a new Eagles record. 

"There's been a long legacy of playing really well on special teams here with the Eagles," Fipp said to the Eagles' website on Wednesday. "I think we inherited some of that legacy and it's been passed down from the guys way before us. We're just picking up the flag and carrying it further. I think there's definitely a standard and an expectation that when you're playing special teams for this organization you have to play at a high level. That really has nothing to do with me. It's set by guys who played a long time ago and then it's set from the very top of the organization, by Mr. (Jeffrey) Lurie, and it all trickles down."

It's not just Fipp. The Eagles as an organization have put an emphasis on special teams, as evidenced by re-signing long-snapper Jon Dorenbos, punter Donnie Jones and special teams ace Chris Maragos to contract extensions during the season. 

This offseason, two important teamers will become free agents: Bryan Braman (UFA) and Trey Burton (RFA). 

While Fipp declined to speak to CSNPhilly.com toward the end of the season about the possibility of becoming a head coach, his players raved about him (see story). From Maragos to Burton to Darren Sproles to Kamu Grugier-Hill, they all thought Fipp has head coach potential. So did Ravens head coach John Harbaugh while on a conference call with Philly reporters during the season. While he did take a year to coach defensive backs, Harbaugh is still the best special teams coordinator-to-head coach example in the league. 

On that conference call, Harbaugh broke down the reasons a special teams coordinator, in theory, should make a good head coach: He has to be organized. He has to understand the roster. He has to evaluate talent. He has to develop young players. And he's the only coach aside from the head coach that deals with both sides of the team. 

Fipp has done a masterful job in his four seasons with the Eagles. In 2016, his unit was the best in the league, but that joy is short-lived. 

"Last year means nothing," Fipp said to the Eagles' website. "Rankings are nice, but at the end of the day it really means nothing. The bottom line for us is we want to contend as a team for championships and playoffs. We've got a lot of work ahead of us to get there. Fortunately, we do have some great players to start with, but we've got a lot of work to do both in acquiring players and also bringing the best out of the players that we've got in this building. We're excited about the future. We're excited to get to work here."

Eagles should stay away from running backs in first round

Eagles should stay away from running backs in first round

Ezekiel Elliott was the fourth overall pick by the Cowboys in the 2016 NFL draft.

He went on to have a historic rookie season, leading the NFL in rushing behind the best offensive line in football.

But do you know who finished second in the league in rushing? That would be the Bears' Jordan Howard, another rookie, drafted in the fifth round. 

If you keep going down the list of the league's top rushers last season, nine out of the top 10 on the list were drafted after the first round. Only three backs in the top 10 were drafted in the first two rounds (Elliott, LeSean McCoy, Le'Veon Bell). 

Whether it's LSU's Leonard Fournette, Florida State's Dalvin Cook or Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, the Eagles should stay away from running backs in the first round.

We'll start with Fournette, considered by most to be the best running back in the class. He was also mocked to the Eagles in a trade-up scenario by Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke with the No. 5 overall pick. Burke is an excellent evaluator, but in this case, he's off the mark. Fournette's talent is real. His combination of size and speed is unmatched by any running back in the class and perhaps any running back in the NFL. He'll correctly be the first back off the board and go in the top 10. 

But would the Eagles give up a second-round pick to obtain Fournette? It's just hard to see as realistic. This team has too many holes and not enough draft picks to make a move like Burke suggests. Fournette looks like he'll be a special player, just not for the Eagles.

Then there's Cook, who seems to be the belle of the ball with Eagles fans. Watching the tape, it's undeniable: Cook is an extremely talented player. But evaluations aren't black and white. Cook has issues with injuries (multiple shoulder surgeries) and has had a couple issues off the field. 

He also tested poorly at the combine. In the biggest audition of his life, Cook's numbers didn't match what you saw on tape. That has to make you wonder if he was fully prepared for the combine. If the Eagles take Cook, there's no doubt he'll make their offense better. The biggest concern has to be his long-term success and the value you get taking him at 14 over another player at a more valuable position.

Lastly, there's McCaffrey. It's easy to see the fit here. McCaffrey is an explosive back who runs routes and has the ball skills of a receiver. He's also incredibly dangerous in the return game. Unlike Cook, McCaffrey tested off the charts in Indy. His strength (10 reps at 225) is the only real concern.

From a scheme perspective, McCaffrey is perfectly suited for Doug Pederson's offense. Pederson can use McCaffrey much like Andy Reid used Brian Westbrook over a decade ago. McCaffrey's struggles running between the tackles are a little overblown, but it still has to be a concern for a team that doesn't have a proven, primary back. 

This is also a strong running back class. Toledo's Kareem Hunt would fit nicely in this offense and should be available in the third round. Clemson's Wayne Gallman is a tough, versatile back that could be available in the third or fourth. There's also BYU's Jamaal Williams, Pitt's James Conner and Wyoming's Brian Hill, all of whom should be there in the middle rounds.

When you look at who else could be there at 14, it just doesn't make sense to draft a running back. If you're looking to give Carson Wentz more weapons, either Clemson's Mike Williams, Western Michigan's Corey Davis or Washington's John Ross should be there. Any of them could give Wentz a long-term receiving threat. 

If you're looking to improve the defense, there are plenty of options. In case you've been living under a rock this offseason, this cornerback draft class is crazy deep. Ohio State's Marshon Lattimore is the best of the bunch and will likely be gone by 14. His teammate, Gareon Conley, should still be around at 14. So should LSU's TreDavious White, Alabama's Marlon Humphrey, Clemson's Cordrea Tankersley and Florida's Quincy Wilson. 

Don't count out Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett as an option if he's on the board. With Vinny Curry's struggles and the Eagles' lack of depth, a pass rusher is a definite need. If Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster slips for a spat he had with a hospital worker during the combine, he's worth a long look. He's a game-changing 'backer.

Elliott was as close to a sure thing as you can get. There's a reason he was taken at No. 4 overall. If Cook and McCaffrey are there at 14, there's a reason for that, too. 

Eagles owner Jeff Lurie rails against political polarization in Washington

Eagles owner Jeff Lurie rails against political polarization in Washington

Eagles owner Jeff Lurie isn't often very outspoken on football or political matters. 

He has apparently made an exception. 

Just a few days before Lurie is tentatively scheduled to speak to Philadelphia reporters while in Phoenix for the league's annual meetings, the Eagles owner authored a story for Time Magazine railing against political polarization in Washington.

Lurie has not spoken to reporters publicly since last March in Boca Raton, Florida, at the 2016 owners meetings. 

The owner's essay was published just hours after House Republican leaders pulled legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act on Friday afternoon. Lurie, for the record, donated money to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign last year.

Lurie, the Eagles' 65-year-old billionaire owner, in the story, uses football as an example for which Washington should strive. 

Here's how Lurie begins the piece:

"What do football, political polarization and autism have in common? They all illuminate aspects of the human condition, explaining who we are, where we are headed and the hurdles along the way. As a sports team owner I rarely publicly discuss politics, but as a member of a family touched by autism, I often think about the unspoken millions of people who live with the daily challenges of this disorder."

Lurie then goes on to explain why football can act as a guide for Washington when it comes to united for the common good:

"What I have learned from football can be applied to society at large. Just as we intensely game-plan against an opponent in sports, we need to game plan for the reality and consequences of polarization. Extreme polarization is the opponent -- not each other. A football team is made up of players from a wide variety of backgrounds, experiences and political viewpoints. What unites them is grit, determination, and the desire to win. They join in a common goal and do what is necessary to transcend their differences for the greater good of their team.

"What unites Americans is far more negative. We are now in an age where communicating verifiable information becomes secondary to the goal of creating a common enemy that unifies people in fear, negativity and opposition. This masks our inability to solve serious domestic problems (poverty, violence and institutional racism to name three current examples) and diverts our attention from obvious suffering."

Lurie then writes that we, as Americans, have the "necessary resources" to tackle serious problems, like autism, but lack the leadership to put aside differences. 

The whole piece isn't very long and is worth reading in full to gain a better understanding of its context. 

Next week while in Phoenix, Lurie will surely be asked about what motivated him to write the piece.