For the first time in years, the Eagles didn't go out this offseason and sign a position player exclusively based on his special teams prowess. No Seyi Ajirotutu. No Bryan Braman. No Chris Maragos. It just goes to show the difference in mentality between Chip Kelly and virtually every other head coach and general manager in the NFL.
That's not to suggest Doug Pederson and Howie Roseman don't value special teams, and frankly it was perhaps the one area that probably didn't need an upgrade. Then again, it's might be fair to say they don't value it quite as highly as Chip did. And to take that logic a step further, it might also be fair to guess the performance of special teams will pay the price for it.
As we'll explain, the Eagles should continue to field quality special teams. In fact, one phase in particular is likely to experience some improvement. Yet it's hard to believe that overall the special teams are going to get better when it's no longer treated with as much importance.
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This admittedly is something of a guess. Kickers are a fickle bunch to begin with, while neither Cody Parkey or Caleb Sturgis has a track record of proven consistency in the NFL. That being said, the fact that the Eagles have their choice between the two can be viewed as a positive, and assuming he's healthy, Parkey might be an upgrade.
Sturgis actually settled in after a shaky start with the Eagles and went on to have a career year in terms of both field-goal percentage and kickoffs. Still, Parkey has proven more accurate and with a bit of a bigger leg, granted through only 19 games a professional. He'll also need to demonstrate that he's back to full strength after tearing all three muscles in the groin and developing blood clots. If Parkey can do that, however, a Pro Bowl kicker is returning to the field.
Say what you want about Chip Kelly, but special teams were amazing during his regime. That wasn't by accident, either. The Eagles spent more of their practices than is typical working on this phase and signed numerous free agents specifically for their special teams prowess.
The good news is many of the names that helped make special teams such an overwhelming success are still around — Darren Sproles, Nolan Carroll, Trey Burton, Braman, Maragos, even coach Dave Fipp. It's even possible there won't be a marked difference from last season. However, purely based on the fact that Doug Pederson isn't going to run his practices like a glorified special teams clinic, some decline in production might be expected. At least it's hard to believe the Eagles are still ascending in this department.
It's so often overlooked, but having a solid punter truly does change games. How many times in the past three seasons with the Eagles has Jones pinned an opponent deep in their own end or flipped field position with a booming punt? And the 13th-year veteran is still going strong too, as his net average per punt of 41.6 yards was good for sixth in the NFL and the second highest mark of his career. Jones is a Pro Bowl-caliber specialist and a real weapon for this team to have.
For years, Jon Dorenbos was as solid as any long snapper in the league, with two trips to the Pro Bowl including as recently as 2014. But when the long snapper makes a mistake, that's about the only time most people take notice, and Dorenbos made two glaring errors in a one-point loss to the Miami Dolphins — bad snaps that led to a blocked punt and missed field goal.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise then the Eagles brought in competition this summer in the form of John DePalma, a 6'5", 251-pound undrafted rookie out of West Virginia. If he proves capable, he'd come at a fraction of the cost of a 14-year veteran. Plus, with Dorenbos turning 36 and making headway on TV's America's Got Talent, one has to wonder how much longer he plans on playing. We'd like to think Dorenbos is still a dependable long snapper who had one rough week, only we can't even say for certain the job is still his.
BETTER OR WORSE?
With so many of the same key pieces in place, you might expect the same performance. Yet with so much less focus and attention expected to be paid to special teams, plus the fact that it's been at such a high level for so long, it may have nowhere to go but down. That's probably not entirely fair, but aside from the prospect of a more confident kicking game, no other improvements were made. WORSE