At times last year, it seemed like the best side of the football for the Philadelphia Eagles was neither the offense nor the defense, but instead, the special teams. They were returning kicks for touchdowns, blocking kicks, and just having an all-around great year with Dave Fipp at the helm of the special teams unit. Sometimes, it was the play of the special teams that gave the team a lift and allowed them to win early on in the season when Nick Foles was struggling. That will once again be important in 2015.
There is no doubt that Sam Bradford is going to be rusty for the first few weeks of the season. He’s barely played real football in the past two years. Until he gets fully comfortable, they’ll need as much of a team effort as possible. This is where the special teams comes in.
Last year, the Eagles had one of the best special teams units in the league. It’s hard to measure a special teams unit as a whole because of how many different things it encompasses, but they were ranked No. 1 according to metrics on Football Outsiders.
Rookie kicker Cody Parkey had a sensational season that resulted in a Pro Bowl. He made 32 of 36 field goals, and the 32 makes were tied for third in the league. He was a perfect 4-for-4 from 50 or more yards, one of two kickers in the league to have a perfect field goal percentage from that distance with at least four attempts. He also made all 54 PAT attempts, which was second most in the league. For just a first-year player, Parkey had a great year and should continue to dominate.
Donnie Jones is a former All-Pro punter, and while he isn’t quite at that level anymore, he is still a very solid player. He continues to be great at pinning punts inside the 20, tying for the league-leading 34 of them last year. Considering he only had 76 punts, to pin that many inside the 20 is impressive. This high percentage of punts landing inside the 20 can often affect a punter’s average punt because he’s going for accuracy more than just booming it, which explains why he’s lower in those categories.
On the return side, Darren Sproles led the way for them, recording more than 100 more punt return yards than any player in the league. His 13.0 yards per return was also the best in the league, and his two return touchdowns was tied for the best among punt returners.
Josh Huff and Chris Polk split the kick return duties, but among players with at least 10 kick returns, they were both in the top 10- Polk was fourth and Huff was ninth. With Polk gone, Huff may be the primary kick returner, or maybe they’ll use Nelson Agholor back there. Agholor was a great punt returner for USC, but the Eagles will likely let Sproles handle most of the punt returns again. Either way, Agholor is a great weapon there.
Most importantly though, they had great players behind the scenes on special teams. You know, the guys rushing the kick/punt and making the tackles. They specifically signed Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman for that purpose, and both players shined immediately in their first season with the team. Maragos was tied for ninth in the league with 12 solo special teams tackles, according to data on teamrankings.com.
But it doesn’t stop there. Pro Football Focus’s 2014 All-Pro Special Teams list was littered with Eagles players. Jon Dorenbos, who probably doesn’t get as much credit as he should, was rated the best long snapper in the league. Sproles was obviously listed as the best punt returner, while Braman was listed on the All-Pro kick return coverage with the third highest rating. Trey Burton and Emmanuel Acho were also both on the All-Pro kick return unit.
Burton also blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown. Maragos had two forced fumbles and also returned a blocked kick for a touchdown. It’s plays like that they people often forget, but considering how rare they are in the grand scheme of things, they’re very important.
But the Eagles weren’t done accumulating top special teams talent. One of the players tied with Maragos for solo special teams tackles was Seyi Ajirotutu, who the Eagles signed in the offseason. Brad Jones, another guy they signed this offseason, had nine special teams solo tackles. They’re clearly committed to keeping this special teams unit one of the top in the league.
Other than Chris Polk, who was never a huge part of the special teams anyway, every single key member of the unit that was so special in 2014 is back, including a couple extra productive guys. There is no doubt this group should return to its dominance and give this team something it had been missing for a while before last year: a powerful, all-around great special teams.
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