Free agency could carry heavy implications for Eagles special teams unit

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Free agency is set to be another rollercoaster for the Philadelphia Eagles. The team are widely expected to add some established talent at some key positions ahead of the NFL Draft, as well as freeing up some cap space in the process through means of trade. The team also have fourteen players whose futures are murky at this stage. The media microscope is placed heavily on defensive tackle Bennie Logan and rightly so. But while the 13 other players set to enter free agency may not carry the weight that Logan does in terms of being an all-out starter, there’s a common thread throughout.

The Eagles special teams unit has been phenomenal in recent years, largely due to the presence of special teams coach, Dave Fipp. His style and consistency has helped the Eagles unit to not only lead the NFL in kickoff return yards and opposing kickoff starting point..but to rank 2nd in the league in both return categories, kicking coverage and penalties. Who could forget the record setting kick return touchdowns in back-to-back weeks?! Then just one year earlier, the Eagles tied an NFL record for special teams touchdown, amassing seven on the season while blocking a league high six kicks.

The success of the Eagles special teams unit has been well documented..and rightly so. Ranking as the best in the NFL in two of the last three seasons according to Rick Gosselin’s index, Fipp has been instrumental in retaining such incredible consistency throughout the recent coach and culture change. However if Free agency works against the Birds, their esteemed unit may take a huge hit.

Of the 14 players set to enter free agency, 5 played in 40% of special teams snaps or more. When you look at those who contributed heavily to Fipp’s formidable unit, it’s clear just how much of a step back the unit could take. Of the players who were on the Eagles final 53-man roster ahead of the season opener against Cleveland, only veteran Stephen Tulloch played in less than 10% of special teams snaps..although he didn’t play in any for that matter.

Bryan Braman: 82.3%
Stephen Tulloch: N/A
Nolan Carroll: 22%
Bennie Logan: 12.7%
Trey Burton: 62.3%
Stefen Wisniewski: 16.8%
Kenjon Barner: 22.5%
Jaylen Watkins: 52.3%
Najee Goode: 66.4%

(Joined after start of regular season)
Dwayne Gratz: 0%
Terrell Watson: 1.1%
Rick Lovato: 5.5%
C.J Smith: 16.4%

Bryan Braman, Trey Burton, Jaylen Watkins and Kenjon Barner are just four players who not only contributed extensively on special teams, but made their presence felt on both Offense and Defense during the 2016 season. While role players may be regarded as replaceable by many, Fipp has molded a certain type of player in recent years. All four of the aforementioned have been key pieces in the recent success.  In 2015, Trey Burton led the Eagles in special teams tackles..while Najee Goode ranked second this season, behind only Chris Maragos.

Versatility is rapidly becoming a staple of the Eagles roster..and an ability to perform on special teams is a vital part of that. Many players have carved their careers by earning their stripes on special teams and the Eagles are no different. The most recent example was Trey Burton. As a fourth tight end in his rookie year, Burton spent the season playing on special teams and saw his first offensive action just one year ago, catching a huge pass against the Lions before being utilized far more heavily under Doug Pederson in 2016. Burton went on to receive for 327 yards and his first career touchdown.

Kenjon Barner, Wendell Smallwood and even Josh Huff prior to his release all found themselves forcing their way into prominent special teams roles, mirroring the likes of veteran Darren Sproles before them.

While the direction of the Eagles may be one of youth and growth..the special teams unit is built on efficiency, effort and experience..all three qualities have been shown time and time again by many of the names in the above list. If the Eagles were to lose more than just a few of these names, replacing their spot on the depth chart will be easy..but their presence on the field and ability to have such a dominant special teams impact may take a while to establish.

It will certainly be interesting to see how much of an impact Dave Fipp has on deciding who the Eagles decide to bring back..but this could also be a season of development for a special teams unit that has sat atop the NFL for a while now. A new breed of player is emerging and a new influx of talent could be set to make themselves known under Dave Fipp in years to come. Whether or not the incredible unit will notice a drop off in efficiency, should they lose some key players from the last few seasons, could play a huge role in the success of the Eagles special teams in 2017.

 

Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

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