Eagles Training Camp Preview: Special Teams
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - Dave Fipp and the rest of the special teams coordinators around the NFL are about to enter uncharted waters, something former NFL referee Terry McAulay called the "biggest change I've ever seen."
McAulay, one of four veteran refs who called it a career this offseason, was talking about the new kickoff rules designed to make the machinations of the play more like a punt and therefore lessen high-speed collisions and hopefully make what is statistically the most dangerous play in the game a bit safer.
“It isn’t getting as much press, but the kickoff change, this may be the biggest change I’ve ever seen,” McAulay said when talking with ESPN. “People know so little about it. There are so many restrictions on what either side of the ball can do."
Back at the NovaCare Complex, Fipp is taking a wait-and-see approach.
"We are definitely excited about it," Fipp said back in the spring. "We have tried a number of different things out there this spring. Different alignments. Different formations. Different types of players at different positions. It's all been positive. I think we've learned a lot thus far."
Nothing is set in stone just yet making this preseason a little more important than most.
"I think all 32 special teams coaches are going to be watching everybody else this preseason to help finalize that plan whatever that is and I think through the course of the year it will adjust."
Fipp has other adjustments to make as well, namely the transition from grizzled and proven vet Donnie Jones to the unproven Cameron Johnston at punter, working the venerable and ever-productive Darren Sproles back in as the punt returner during his final season and working in some new core coverage players like Corey Nelson and LaRoy Reynolds.
Back at the NFL combine, long before the draft or offseason work, Doug Pederson singled out the one area on the Super Bowl champions where he thought his team could improve the most was special teams.
“We can get better there,” the coach admitted in Indianapolis, “and it’s not about scheme, anything like that –- just getting better. We had a lot of young guys play, and it’s going to help us this year having those young guys back, the Mack Hollinses the Shelton Gibsons, guys like that who are going to go into Year 2. They will get better.”
Typically special teams had been a strength in Philadelphia since Fipp arrived in 2013, along with Chip Kelly. Last year, however, the Eagles were affected by two key injuries which hampered the return game (Sproles) as well as the coverage teams (Chris Maragos).
"We had our work cut out for us when [they] went down but that's the nature of the game," Fipp said. "I think some guys did a nice job stepping up."
When asked about potential improvement Fipp stressed that every year is different in the modern NFL.
"We are hoping to play good football I know that," he said. "Winning football, contribute to the team's success. I think we've done that for the most part [during] my time here. Obviously sometimes better than others. ... last year we lost a bunch of talented players and that's always a challenge."
Sproles, one of the all-time great punt returners, will be back off a torn ACL in 2018 to help that unit as well as perhaps the new kickoff-return game due to the changes
"That is definitely a possibility," Fipp admitted when asked about Sproles expanding his role to kickoffs. "One of the big things I think the league is trying to take out is when a real big guy hits a real small guy and I think a lot of the rule changes are based on trying to promote playing a smaller player, a faster player and eliminate the big offensive lineman back there on the wedge taking on smaller guys so I think that's the intent of a lot of the rule changes."
As for Maragos, Fipp compared his loss to an offense down its best receiver.
"All those types of players. Those guys who run down the field and make a lot of plays have a bunch of production. Chris Maragos, Bryan Braman. Those types of players are hard to replace," Fipp explained. "It's like on offense with a guy that has like a million catches, leads the team in catches. How do you replace that guy? It's hard to do."
One guy Fipp understands he has to replace is Jones with first-year player Johnston the leader in the clubhouse and no competition, at least in-house.
"I always say the most challenging situation is when there is not another guy here because you are always competing against somebody and it's a whole lot easier when you can watch the guy you're competing against every day and you kind of know where he's at and where you're at," Fipp said when discussing what is currently a one-man show at punter on the 90-man offseason roster. "The harder guy to compete against is the guy who's not even in the building."
Fipp believes Johnston is the guy but if there is a drop in production over the summer that could change quickly.
"We will look at every player that is out there obviously," Fipp said. "We'll watch [Johnston] and we are going to end up going with the best guy. Sometimes that's the guy you have on your roster, sometimes it's not. I will say in regards to Cameron I feel great about him. He's done a great job. I thought he had a really good preseason a year ago, played well, Has really done a great job improving himself in the offseason. He has become a much better holder which was a little concern a year ago for me."
Others brought in to bolster the coverage teams are backup linebackers Nelson and Reynolds.
"I think those guys are really good players," Fipp said. "I think they can play well."
As for the end result, Fipp will take being singled out again, as long as another Lombardi Trophy is residing at One NovaCare Way.
"The thing I was most pleased with a year ago: I felt like at the beginning of the year that we were going to have to be a team that really improved each week and we were going to have to play our best football down the stretch and I really thought that happened with that group," Fipp said. "We didn't always play at the level that I would like up to play at. Sometimes we were off a little bit. ... Toward the end of the year, I thought we got better and better and better and I thought we played out best game in the Super Bowl against a really talented team on special teams."
P1 Cameron Johnston - Strong-legged Australian needs to show consistency.
K1 Jake Elliott - Elliott arguably sparked the Eagles' run last season with the 61-yard game-winner against the NYG.
LS1 Rick Lovato - Steady presence has been solid since replacing Jon Dorenbos.
H1 Cameron Johnston - Dave Fipp acknowledged this as an area Johnston needed to improve upon before he got the job.
PR1 Darren Sproles - One of the all-time great returners. How much is left in the tank?
KR1 ? - With the Eagles go with Sproles due to the new rules or more conventional route (Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood)?
ST POSITION GRADE: 6.0
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-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen