Roster cutdown weekend was a rollercoaster for the Philadelphia Eagles. There were plenty of surprises, both pleasant and not so, throughout the course of a hectic 48-hour period, but one area of the team that looks set for a resurgence is special teams.
Dave Fipp’s unit is traditionally one of the better ones in the NFL. While names like Jake Elliott and Cameron Johnston still help maintain that reputation, the return game and coverage has started lacking in recent years. The Eagles ranked 15th in Rick Gosselin’s 2019 rankings Football outsiders had the team ranked 19th.
The team allowed 23 yards per opposing kick return last year, a subtle 1-yard increase, but a 100-yard touchdown doesn’t exactly scream ‘excellent’. Punt coverage has typically been very strong and an average of 6.4 yards allowed last season kept up appearances.
This offseason, there has been a clear push to retain special teams’ talent.
A change of heart
After losing names like Kamu Grugier-Hill and Malcolm Jenkins, it was clear the Eagles needed some kind of special teams boost. There was an abundance of defensive back depth, but a plethora of corners with starting experience were cut. The one who remained was Craig James – a man who led the Eagles in special teams tackles last year and played in over 52% of snaps on Fipp’s unit.
Elsewhere, a team who typically don’t value linebackers, kept all six on their roster. Two of whom, Duke Riley and Alex Singleton, played in over 40% of special teams snaps last year and were among the groups top performers.
The Eagles then surprised many by bringing in running back Jason Huntley, a fifth-round pick of the Lions from this year’s draft who was waived after camp. Bearing a similar skillset to Adrian Killins, what really stands out is the fact that he led the NCAA in kickoff return touchdowns in 2018 (3), ending his collegiate career with 5 overall.
As many know, the Eagles have struggled to find consistency at the return spot in recent years. Injuries to Darren Sproles left a gaping hole that a string of candidates failed to fill. Muffed returns and more injuries headlined the unit over the last two years, but now players such as Huntley, and even this year’s draft picks such as Jalen Reagor, could all see time fielding punts.
The voice of reason
Special teams coordinator Dave Fipp was asked about the group on Tuesday and how much of a voice he had during the roster cutdown period.
“I think some of these guys maybe played better on special teams than on offense or defense, and maybe the back end of the roster, some of those guys maybe have more of special teams role.
Then obviously the front of the roster is the opposite of that. The higher up the guy is, the less special teams role he has, the more his value on offense and defense probably plays into these things.
At the end of the day for me, I can voice my opinion and say how I think any particular player is or how good he is, and then ultimately those guys have the tough decisions to make.”
The Eagles also look set to maximize the value of their rookies this year. Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley, the two drafted linebackers, look set to play a role on special teams. But when asked about the youth of the group, Fipp mentioned an area overlooked by many.
A hidden ace
“The other thing I would say is we got a bunch of guys stacked on our practice squad. I’m not going to go into the individual names, but a bunch of those guys we’re really excited about. This year a bunch of those guys will play a role for us also, so we’re excited about the group we got to work with.”
With the new practice squad rules enabling teams to not only keep 6 more players, but safely rotate 2 on and off the roster each week without exposing them to waivers, there is a strong chance that players such as Grayland Arnold do see significant action as a very unique season wears on.
There haven’t been OTA’s and camp has been limited. Most importantly, without any preseason games, the Eagles have been unable to bring players to the ground on special teams drills. Experience matters this season perhaps more than ever before. The good news is, it looks as though it has been a real area of focus for Howie Roseman and the coaching staff.
Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire