The 700 Level’s annual Philadelphia Eagles training camp preview returns. We’re taking an in-depth look at Birds position by position and asking whether the club got better or worse. Check out the introduction for more details on the series.
Return Options / Nelson Agholor
It’s difficult to imagine the return game improving. In all, the Eagles took back four kicks or punts for touchdowns in 2014, including two by Darren Sproles, who received his first ever invitation to the Pro Bowl. Second-year wide receiver Josh Huff seems to have emerged as an explosive playmaker as well, authoring the longest play in franchise history last season with a 106-yard kickoff return.
That being said, it never hurts to have alternatives, which the Eagles added at least one in Agholor. The first-round draft pick out of USC had two returns for touchdowns in each of the past two seasons on just 37 attempts—nearly 11 percent of the time. Agholor returned kicks as well, 24 over three years.
Agholor’s presence provides depth, for one thing. And while the Eagles shouldn’t necessarily look for reasons to take the ball out of Sproles’ hands, he is 32 years old, and the club could manage his snaps and keep him fresh by inserting Agholor to field the occasional punt without fear of losing the potential for a big play.
Kick Coverage Unit
James Casey blocked a punt and was second on the Eagles with 13 tackles in 2014, but the third-string tight end was released during the offseason. Acquired in November, Chris Prosinski finished fourth with nine tackles, but the reserve safety could be fighting for a roster spot this summer. Cornerback Bradley Fletcher, wide receiver Brad Smith and running back Chris Polk racked up five, six and seven special teams tackles respectively, but all were allowed to walk this offseason.
One must wonder whether a change in players’ roles could lead to less work on special teams as well. Brandon Graham had eight ST tackles in ’14, but finally ascends to the top of the depth chart at outside linebacker. Nolan Carroll was third on the club with 11, but is now competing for a starting cornerback job. That doesn’t mean neither will appear on special teams at all, although it wouldn’t be unusual if their duties were reduced.
To be fair, the Eagles acquired some excellent special teams contributors as well, most notably wide receiver Seyi Ajirotutu and linebacker Brad Jones. Carroll hasn’t won the starting job yet, while Prosinski isn’t out the door, either, and may have a better shot to stick than many think given the weak group at safety. Regardless, there’s been some fairly significant turnover on the coverage units, and while this is merely a projection, a step back seems plausible.
Philadelphia allowed 22.8 yards per kick return and 8.2 yards per punt return last season, those figures good for 12th and 13th respectively—and I’m not sure that does the units justice. There are still a few aces up the Eagles’ sleeve in the form of Chris Maragos, Bryan Braman and Trey Burton, but it remains to be seen whether the team’s special teams are still elite.
Not many teams are blessed with Pro Bowl-caliber players at kicker, punter and special teams, yet improbably enough, the Eagles are one of a lucky few.
The unlikeliest of those is no doubt Cody Parkey, an undrafted free agent acquired last August in a trade with the Indianapolis Colts. This time last year, Alex Henery was battling some kid inaccurately dubbed “Murderleg” for Philly’s place kicking duties, until camp body David Fluellen was sent to acquire Parkey, both of whom were about to end up on waivers anyway. All Parkey managed to do was win the job in two weeks time, make 32-of-36 field goal tries in 2014 and go on to play in the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
Donnie Jones arrived in Philadelphia as a free agent in 2013, and for some reason had been bouncing around the league the past couple seasons. That year, he won NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors in back-to-back games, pinning 11 of 14 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line—with longs of 70 and 69—in a pair of one-possession victories. Over the past two seasons, Jones had 67 punts downed inside the opponents’ 20 compared to just 14 touchbacks. Where’s his Pro Bowl invite?
The Eagles unearthed Jon Dorenbos way back in November of 2006 after Mike Bartrum suffered a career-ending injury. Since then, Dorenbos has been to a pair of Bowls, including just last season, and if he’s ever been responsible for an errant snap, I certainly don’t remember it. He’s been as solid as they come.
Jones and Dorenbos are getting up there in years, but have shown no evidence of slipping, and if anything, the 23-year-old Parkey should only improve. The Eagles are in a great situation here.
Obviously, special teams are a critical, often underrated phase of the game of football than can impact and even alter outcomes. The question is, can an emphasis on special teams be the difference between winning and losing in the NFL on a consistent basis?
What the Eagles accomplished on special teams over the course of 2014 is unlike anything I personally have witnessed in pro football. The number of momentum-swinging plays was unheard of, from kick and punt return touchdowns to blocked kicks and turnovers, and just the all-around steady performances by the kicker, punter, long snapper and coverage units.
There were numerous games the Eagles were only in—much less won—because of this.
The question now becomes whether that kind of success can be replicated and even sustained from year to year. The Eagles will continue to have quality special teams in 2015 because head coach Chip Kelly invests in that aspect. But are dominant special teams a thing that there’s a blueprint for when, generally speaking, we’re talking about a revolving door of reserves and back-end-of-the-bench talents?
We shall see. Until an NFL team comes along and begins stacking up multiple seasons like the one the Eagles just produced you have to believe some regression is inevitable. Then again, I’m not sure who the last NFL coach is to focus on special teams the way Kelly has.
BETTER OR WORSE?
Can Philadelphia’s special teams possibly get better? There’s another option in the return game, but it will be hard to increase production there. Parkey might improve, although aside from increasing leg strength, how much do kickers really develop their talents, especially one who’s already very accurate? And while it’s not a given the coverage units experience a drop-off, it seems somewhat likely considering the amount of turnover. The Eagles should still have excellent special teams, but compared to last year, we couldn’t possibly make the call it will be better.