Less than 24 hours separate the Philadelphia Eagles from their final preseason game and a flurry of roster cuts. 43 men will be forced to pack up with patience and wait to see where their next home will be located. But with underdogs across the board all vying to make the cut, there’s one area of the team where a flash of production could almost certainly improve chances of sticking onto the final 53. It’s also an area the Eagles have sneakily focused on this season.
“Obviously his voice, his opinion matters.” Doug Pederson said of special teams coordinator Dave Fipp. “I stress a lot with this football team that it takes all three phases, offense, defense and special teams. He has a really good impact of the bottom — say the bottom third or so of the roster, and really even some of our starters that have to play. We ask a starter from time to time to play at least one unit of special teams.
So he sees these guys work every day in drill work and the special teams portion of practice. It makes a difference. It makes an impact on the guys we keep at the bottom.”
Fipp’s prestigious unit has ranked slap-bang in the middle of the park during the last two years, with roster turnover being a significant obstacle to overcome.
Take these charts for example. Names with a yellow box signify that the player is no longer with the team, while a red outline highlights a player set to miss time in 2019 with injury.
The Eagles were set to lose a significant chunk of special teams production this offseason with free agency carving a hot Knife into it. But an injury to the man who has led the team in special teams tackles in back-to-back season’s, and another to Shelton Gibson, who played in 34% of snaps last year as a gunner, only intensified the problem.
But that doesn’t mean the unit is in trouble. Because through all the big signings, stunning trades and crafty draft moves, the Eagles have been able to build the back-end of the roster in a way that accounts for these losses.
The Eagles have been frantic with back-end moves this offseason, signing 15 players since training camp opened. 13 remain. Why?
Take Blake Countess for example. In theory, the former Eagles sixth-round pick re-joined the team with a special teams role in mind after leading the Rams in special teams tackles in back-to-back seasons. An injury ended that hope and while Tre Sullivan has been productive, he’s been more than inconsistent at the best of times. Enter Rudy Ford, who signed with the team just a matter of days ago. During his NFL career, he’s played in 455 special teams snaps in comparison to 62 defensive snaps, but appeared in 13 games for the Cardinals last season.
At linebacker, L.J Fort has stolen the show during preseason, solidifying his place on the roster. His defensive dominance over the last few weeks has been excellent, but his hidden value is easy to see. Fort has been a perennial special teamer throughout his career and will bolster Dave Fipp’s renowned unit. He played in 72.5% of the Steelers’ special teams snaps last year, more than any linebacker on the team. That in itself will stand out to the Eagles here, who will need someone to step up in the absence of KGH.
Special teams has been ingrained in this team for so long, it’s a very valid way for an underdog to force his way into the conversation. At Tight End, the Eagles won’t be playing Zach Ertz or Dallas Goedert tomorrow night, and with Richard Rodgers out, it opens the door to the wildcards. Alex Ellis may have snatched the spotlight with a TD last week, but after playing in 38% of special teams snaps last year, it’s Joshua Perkins who has the chance to follow in the footsteps of Trey Burton, who once led the Eagles in special teams tackles under the guidance of Zach Ertz, James Casey, and Brent Celek.
If you want further proof of just how important this is, just look at Deiondre Hall. The Eagles have made a flurry of moves at Safety over the last month, but the depth mainstay has been Hall. Quiet, unflashy, but he’s there. Why? Hall saw action in a career-high 13 games last year and ranked 8th on the Eagles with 175 special teams snaps (40%) while adding 5 special teams tackles to his account.
Mack Hollins has fallen woefully under-the-radar this offseason and has been outshined by several. The fact he was a four-year special teams captain at UNC may have something to do with the fact he’s still kicking and screaming.
Take recently acquired LB Tony Pullard. An experienced linebacker who has 552 special teams snaps in four NFL seasons, or athletic freak S Jason Thompson, who could pack a similar punch on special teams.
The majority of signings this offseason, yes, even DeSean Jackson, the return of Darren Sproles, and undrafted guys like T.J Edwards and CFL export Alex Singleton who has 27 special teams tackles in 2 years for the Stampeders, all carry special teams weight.
Week 4 of preseason is absolutely critical to those striving to make the roster on offense and defense, but if they don’t get the chance to shine, they will always have a moment to stand out on special teams, one last time.
Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports