Despite a trip to the Super Bowl, Eagles’ special teams wasn’t very good in 2022. At least by most accounts.
According to ProFootballFocus, they were No. 30 out of 32 teams in the league. And longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin ranked them No. 31 in his annual rankings.
While much of the fan angst about the Eagles’ special teams heading into the 2023 season is about the punter situation, the worry extends beyond that. Because the Eagles need to find some new special teams standouts to help bolster these units.
“It definitely brings an excitement on who is going to unveil themselves as those core guys,” Eagles special teams coordinator Michael Clay said on Thursday. “You have the Christian Elliss’s from last year, who played a big part.Patrick Johnson has been here for a few years.
“A lot of these young guys, there’s a lot of excitement around Sydney Brown. He did a lot of good things in training camp. There are a lot of people we were able to throw in there and see what they can do.
“You have Kelee Ringo, Nolan Smith, those freakish athletes that you want to see out there and perform at a high level. I’m very excited to see who unveils themselves to be those core guys because it’s going to be important for us to lean on those guys.”
Of the 15 Eagles who played the most special teams snaps in the 2022 season, we know for sure that eight of them will not suit up for the Eagles in the opener. Two of the major contributors from last season — Shaun Bradley and Zech McPhearson — tore their Achilles tendons in the preseason.
Both Bradley and McPhearson are out for the season.
“I’m hoping that they heal up, get healthy fast. Unfortunately, that’s just how it goes,” veteran tight end and special teamer Jack Stoll said. “It’s a violent sport. As a result, some people are going to get hurt. Some of those people you relied on, on special teams. They’re not going to be available. That’s the unfortunate truth. We’re just going to have to pick it up.”
But it’s more than just Bradley and McPhearson. Take a look at the top 15 snap-getters from the Eagles’ special teams units in 2022:
Zech McPhearson (362 snaps) — Out for the season with an Achilles tear
Nakobe Dean (340) — Now a starter and will likely play fewer snaps on special teams
K’Von Wallace (323) — Released at final cuts and claimed by the Cardinals
Patrick Johnson (315) — Expected to have a big role again in 2023
Shaun Bradley (314) — Out for the season with an Achilles tear
Kyron Johnson (265) — Released at final cuts, subsequently released from practice squad
Zach Pascal (246) — Left in free agency to join the Cardinals
Josh Jobe (220) — Expected to have a big role again in 2023
Jack Stoll (203) — Expected to have a big role again in 2023
Jake Elliott (171) — Still one of the best kicker in the NFL going into 2023
Marcus Epps (170) — Left in free agency to join the Raiders
Josiah Scott (156) — Released at final cuts, joined Steelers’ practice squad
Andre Chachere (141) — On the Cardinals’ practice squad
Rick Lovato (139) — Entering his seventh full season as Eagles long snapper
Britain Covey (108) — Still the likely punt returner but begins season on practice squad
Patrick Johnson, 25, is entering his third NFL season in 2023 and now finds himself as one of the veteran leaders of this special teams group.
“Losing [Bradley and McPhearson], two of my best friends here, it does take a hit on you, emotionally and also as a team,” Johnson said. “But I think we’re going to bounce back, man, and I know my role. I’m a guy who has a lot more experience now. [Bradley] might have been the only guy who had more experience with me but he always shared a lot of things with me.
“I’m going to do a lot of the same things with guys like Nolan (Smith) and the younger guys who are going to be in there now.”
This Eagles rookie class appears to have the right type of juice to help. Smith, like most Georgia starters, had a big role on special teams in college. And just as importantly, he loves to do it. And two athletic defensive backs like Brown and Ringo ought to be good as special teamers. Brown showed off some ability in the preseason, getting down the field quickly but then struggling at times to make the plays. It’s a bit of a work in progress.
Those rookies should help. But early in the season, the Eagles will really be relying on their top returning veterans like Johnson, Stoll, Jobe and Elliss.
“It’s my second year so I’m thinking I do have to play a big role,” said Jobe, who ended up being a solid gunner as a rookie. “I have to step up. We lost Zech to injury and he was a core (guy), I have to step up for him. I’ve got to be a leader and lead by example.”
The Eagles’ special teams, as a whole, were better in the second half of the season and it seems like the addition of Elliss halfway through the year really paid off.
Elliss spent the first half of the 2022 season on the practice squad but earned his spot on the 53-man roster as a difference maker on special teams and eventually earned some playing time on defense. He was a legitimate contender to win a starting job at linebacker this summer. While it looks like Zach Cunningham is going to be the Eagles’ other starter next to Dean, Elliss is a great example of how special teams can boost a career.
If nothing else, Elliss is an example to younger players looking to make a name for themselves in the NFL.
“I think Christian Elliss is an unbelievable example of that,” Stoll said. “He went from practice squad to having a huge role on special teams and that led to him getting snaps on defense. I think guys see the importance of special teams.”
During the summer, when there are 90 guys on the roster, Clay rotates a bunch of players on these units. It’s not until the roster is whittled down to 53 that he really gets a sense of what he’ll have to work with.
Because of that, Johnson wasn’t ready to single out any teammates he thinks can be big contributors on special teams in 2023.
“Honestly, ask me in a week,” Johnson said. “After this game, you’ll see it a little bit better. But we feel confident with everybody.”