Kelly seems to have a predilection for special-teams players

Posted: March 14, 2014

SO, THE EAGLES' strategy seems clear:

Building a better team through special teams.

It seems backward, doesn't it?

Shouldn't special-teams units be composed of the detritus of the roster?

Shouldn't they be a bunch of young, tough players on the edges of the league: desperate defensive backs, lingering linebackers, role-playing receivers?

Apparently not.

The Eagles are still scarred by the Dream Team fiasco of 2011, when the club hired a limo, went to Bergdorf Goodman and bought the store.

For the second offseason in a row, the Eagles are clipping coupons and cabbing it.

It's amazing what you can buy with Kohl's Cash.

The Eagles yesterday added Bryan Braman from the Texans and Chris Maragos from the Seahawks. Braman is, nominally, a linebacker, and Maragos is, by definition, a safety, but the team identified them as special-teamers in announcing their signings.

Also, when free agency began Tuesday afternoon, the Eagles re-signed punter Donnie Jones.

As their featured signing to date, they nabbed free-agent safety Malcolm Jenkins, who spent the last five seasons with the Saints. He will start for the Eagles, but he always has played on special teams, and he would be delighted to continue.

"I actually enjoy doing it. I anticipate I'll probably do that . . . Special-teams plays are just as important as third down . . . Those plays can change a game faster than [giving up a] first-and-10," Jenkins said. "Just like any other play, you want to have your best guys on the field. I embrace it. I think it's something most teams need to move toward. Those are game-breaking plays."

Clearly, with that attitude, Jenkins landed in the right spot.

All of the Eagles' starting safeties played on special teams last season. So did Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, the big cornerback duo the Eagles signed to atone for their spendthrift sins.

First-year coach Chip Kelly had considerably less invested in the safeties than he did in the corners. Jones, who joined the team last season, was glad to see Kelly considers special teams no less special than offense or defense.

Being a special-teams player with the Eagles carries less of a stigma than it does on other teams.

"Special teams is a huge part of the game. Coach Kelly really values special teams," Jones said. "You see that with the signings of Braman, and . . . I'm not sure of the guy's name from Seattle . . . but I know he's a special-teams standout, as well."

The guy from Seattle will, perhaps, help the Eagles improve their 14th-ranked kickoff-return coverage and their 22th-ranked punt-return coverage . . . and, they hope, he will help those units keep the opposition from reaching the end zone, which happened three times to the Eagles. Only Washington gave up more return touchdowns than the Eagles.

It speaks to the Eagles' free-agency strategy that Jones, an 11-year veteran with five teams, didn't know Maragos' name.

Maragos was the second safety signed by the Eagles, who, at this moment, have one safety returning who has significant game experience. That player, Earl Wolff, was a rookie last season and was a non-factor after Game 10 because of a knee injury.

The Saints, meanwhile, let Jenkins walk, then signed safety Jairus Byrd to a 6-year, $54 million contract.

Byrd's price tag and skill set might not fit with the Eagles' scheme and philosophy, but he is the gem of this year's free-agent safeties.

Don't expect him to cover punts in New Orleans.

Then again, Kelly doesn't coach in New Orleans.

"For the head coach to invest the time and money to find guys who are going to help us out on special teams says a lot," Jones said.

Yes, it does.

Veteran tight end James Casey, considered a key signing last season, caught only three passes, but he finished second on the team with 13 special-teams tackles.

Backup safeties Colt Anderson and Kurt Coleman and backup linebacker Casey Matthews finished in the top four, too. They combined for 37 special-teams tackles, more than twice the 16 tackles they accumulated in regular play.

Don't expect any of those three players to be on the roster this season.

Patrick Chung won't be, either. The Eagles signed Chung last year and expected him to be a high-value, low-cost veteran solution.

Chung was, arguably, the worst player on the team.

He wasn't even valuable on special teams.

And that, on Chip Kelly's team, is inexcusable.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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