Free Agency Should Be About Special Teams for Eagles
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - It's not sexy but special teams could be the Eagles' top priority in free agency.
With a Super Bowl-level roster, the majority of starters locked up and the now annual salary-cap restraints that seem to plague Howie Roseman and Jake Rosenberg, the splashy names available are ticketed elsewhere even with the notable recruiting advantage of offering the potential of getting in early on what could be a multiple-Super Bowl run with Carson Wentz as Philadelphia's on-field leader.
In-house, the Eagles seem resigned to losing key role players like Trey Burton and Beau Allen and perhaps even linebacker Nigel Bradham, which would be the biggest blow. Meanwhile, they are wrangling to keep others like slot corner Patrick Robinson, veteran safety Corey Graham, and potentially even running back LeGarrette Blount while also working to restructure veterans like defensive ends Vinny Curry and Chris Long as well as tight end Brent Celek.
As far as bringing in new faces, it's likely going to be limited to the bargain-bin aisle, not necessarily a bad thing because that's where Roseman and Joe Douglas found key contributors like Robinson, Blount, and Long last year.
Coach Doug Pederson did drop a bit of a hint in Indianapolis at the scouting combine, however, when asked where his 16-3 Super Bowl championship team needs to improve if it wants to think about going back-to-back.
“Special teams, we can get better there," Pederson admitted. "And it’s not about scheme, anything like that, just getting better."
Since Dave Fipp arrived as special teams coordinator in Philadelphia back in 2013 the Eagles have had the reputation of being one of the better special teams units in football but things took a little hit last season due to the injuries to Darren Sproles, one of the better punt returners in the history of the league, as well as Chris Maragos, long one of the better coverage players in football.
At 34 and turning 35 in June Sproles has hinted at retirement in the past and is a free agent coming off ACL surgery while Maragos is trying to rehab his own knee surgery (a PCL) and also carries a hefty price tag for a player who essentially specializes in special teams. Even if both are back, the Eagles need to get younger, though.
"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 are going to go into Year 2," Pederson said. "They will get better."
But the Eagles also need some help and Fipp proved to be ahead of the curve back in 2014 when he lobbied the organization to bring in players whose specialization was the part of the game others often ignore. That's when Philadelphia originally brought in Maragos and Bryan Braman as free agents.
The Eagles also don't have the luxury of Donnie Jones any longer as the veteran punter walked off into the sunset with the Lombardi Trophy, leaving undrafted former Ohio State star Cameron Johnston as the odds on favorite at least until competition is brought in.
"[It's] an area where we can continue to improve," Pederson admitted of his special teams. "We just gotta continue to do the little things. ... Guys are gonna come and go. It’s about finding guys that fit our culture, getting them into the building, getting them caught up to speed when OTAs start, and just continue to manage it that way. There’s no substitution for hard work and preparation. I’m a big believer in that.”
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen