Eagles special teams need to kick it up a notch

Posted: June 20, 2014

OK, BOYS and girls, let's put together a list of all of the positive things about the Eagles' special-teams play last season.

Let's see. Well, first and foremost, there was the consistently good punting of Donnie Jones. And there was, uh, the punting of Donnie Jones. And then there was, well, did I mention the punting of Donnie Jones?

OK, so other than Jones, who put a franchise-record 33 punts inside the 20, finished ninth in the league in net average (40.5) and fifth in lowest percentage of punts returned (34.1), the Eagles' special teams pretty much stunk last year.

They finished 26th in kick returns, 27th in punt returns and ninth in kickoff coverage. Thanks largely to Jones, they did rank 11th in punt coverage.

Kicker Alex Henery had the poorest season of his career, finishing 22nd in field-goal percentage (82.1) and converting just six of 10 field-goal attempts from 45 yards or longer. That doesn't include the 48-yarder that the hooked wide left in the Eagles' two-point playoff loss to the Saints.

To quote Andy Reid, you do the math.

More disconcerting than Henery's field-goal kicking, though, was his kickoff problems. Henery finished 23rd in the league in touchback percentage on kickoffs (42.5). Just 37 of his 87 kickoffs weren't returned. With more opportunities, the Eagles' opponents had eight kickoff returns of 35 yards or more last season, including two for touchdowns.

The Eagles' special-teams problems were a bit surprising considering the commitment head coach Chip Kelly made to them.

He hired a bright, young special-teams coordinator, Dave Fipp. He signed and drafted players who could contribute on special teams, devoted extra practice time to it and drummed the importance of special teams into his players.

"There are three ways to make this football team if you're not a starter: special teams, special teams and special teams," Kelly said last summer.

But their special-teams units still underperformed. The Eagles finished 18th in Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin's annual special-teams rankings, which rates teams in 22 different special-teams categories.

The Eagles' inept return game continually forced the offense to play on a long field. They finished 16th in average starting field position (27.7). Just 13 of the Eagles' 51 touchdown drives were less than 60 yards. And five of those came in the Week 1 win over the Redskins (three) and the 54-11 Week 16 destruction of the Bears (two).

"It starts with me and then the guys blocking, and the returner," Fipp said. "Every single aspect of that has got to get better."

Many of the Eagles' offseason moves were aimed at improving the special teams. Linebacker Bryan Braman (Houston) and safety Chris Maragos (Seattle) were two of the top special-teams players on the free-agent market. Nolan Carroll was brought in to add depth at the cornerback position, but he also is an experienced special-teams player who played for Fipp in Miami.

They also added a dangerous returner when they acquired running back Darren Sproles in a March trade with New Orleans.

"Our veteran guys gained experience last year," Fipp said. "We've got a good gunner group on the outside with Brandon [Boykin] and Nolan Carroll, and [rookie Josh] Huff's done a nice job, and you add [rookie Jaylen] Watkins to that mix. So we've got some good players there.

"[Braman and Maragos] are good football players who've played at a high level in this league on special teams for a period of time now. They're really good team players. They're totally committed to the process. They're leaders. Hard workers."

The Eagles also will be getting another special-teams standout, linebacker Jason Phillips, back. The Eagles signed Phillips last year to bolster their special teams, but he tore his ACL in training camp and spent the season on injured reserve.

Sproles is a possibility as both a kickoff and punt returner. But he turns 31 tomorrow and the Eagles have to watch how they use him. He played 364 snaps with the Saints last year and had 165 touches, including 71 receptions. How much he's used as a returner will depend on how much Kelly plans to use him on offense.

"We know Sproles is a dynamic returner," Fipp said. "I don't know that age is a limitation, but it's certainly a factor. We have to be cautious about what we ask him to do and when we ask him to do it."

During the team's 3-day minicamp this week, five players, including Sproles, have been fielding punts. The other four are Damaris Johnson, who split the punt return chores with DeSean Jackson last year, Jeremy Maclin, who is coming off a torn ACL, Riley Cooper and second-round rookie Jordan Matthews.

Sproles, Matthews, Johnson, Carroll, third-round rookie Josh Huff and Brandon Boykin, who has been the team's primary kick returner the last two seasons, all have taken turns fielding kickoffs.

"Right now, we're just rolling guys through there, really working on the fundamentals of how to field the kick and how to catch a kickoff or punt and how to get up field a little bit," Kelly said. "Who it's going to end up being, it's too early to say. But Darren is the one proven commodity that has had a lot of success in the league doing it."

One thing is certain: The Eagles need more from Henery than they got last year. He needs to dramatically improve his touchback percentage on kickoffs and he needs to be more consistent on his longer field-goal attempts.

He has looked good in the spring camps and said last week that his leg feels stronger.

"He's had a good offseason," Fipp said. "I think he has gotten better. He's been extremely accurate as a field-goal kicker over the history of his career [86 percent in three seasons]. But he has to get better at his kickoffs and long field goals."

During his college career at Nebraska, Henery wasn't used on kickoffs. He was used exclusively for field-goal attempts and PATs.

"When he came into the National Football League, he was learning how to kick off," Fipp said.

Henery's 42.5 touchback percentage last season actually was an improvement over 2012, when it was just 39.4.

"It's hard to give an exact number," Fipp said when asked what he would like to see Henery get his touchback percentage up to. "But better than it's been, that's for sure.

"He's struggled with his kickoffs and he's struggled with his long field goals. But it's an interesting dynamic. You've got a guy who's really a very accurate field- goal kicker. But the kickoffs are not up to par.

"So what are you willing to subtract? If you find a kicker that's better than him at kicking field goals and a better touchback guy, well, let me know where he is. Because every team in the league wants him. You know what I'm saying? There's not a lot of those guys floating around out there."

Email: pdomo@aol.com

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