With Training Camp right around the corner, all eyes and ears will be glued to south Philly and the NovaCare Complex where the Eagles will begin the process of heading into the 2016 regular season. With a new head coach, defensive coordinator and offensive coordinator there’s a great deal of change coming to this team. The overall questions are, can the veteran players adapt to new systems and how long will that take?
The one coach who is not new this season is Dave Fipp, special teams coach. He’s consistently put a product on the field second to none in the NFL. The Eagles special teams have been a major contributor to the team’s success during Fipp’s tenure over the past two season (probably Chip Kelly’s best hire) and shouldn’t be taken lightly. All too often, fans and media minds are quick to poke fun at the kicker, punter and long-snapper. But these guys are integral components of the team and many times can and do lead to wins and losses.
After being ranked 18th in 2013 under former special teams coach Bobby April, there wasn’t a better special teams unit in the NFL than the Eagles’ in 2014. Fipp and the players accounted for a franchise-best and NFL-leading seven touchdowns that consisted of three blocked punt returns, two kickoff returns for touchdowns, two punt returns for touchdowns, and a league-best six blocked kicks.
Last year, the Eagles special teams finished top-10. The drop from first to tenth occurred mainly because of missed field goals and extra points according to Football Outsiders’ metrics. Last year K Cody Parkey had missed the season due to a major groin injury.
I have confidence this Eagles special teams group can bounce back and be a top-five unit this season. Here are my special teams grades by position as we head into Training Camp.
Long Snapper: B+
Honestly, it doesn’t seem that the Eagles’ current long snapper, Jon Dorenbos, is worried about his position on the team. Or it could be that he just doesn’t care and is ready to move on from football. As of late, he’s been taking his magic show on the road and highlighting his showmanship and talents. However, heading into Training Camp, he has some competition. Just a few months ago, the Eagles actually gave a signing bonus to an undrafted free agent rookie many of us have never heard of before. John DePalma comes into camp with a lot of eyes on him and the long snapper position. He’s no slouch standing at 6’5” and weighing 252-pounds. From all indications, DePalma is extremely talented and may just take over for Dorenbos, the 10-year veteran.
Donnie Jones has been one of the most consistent punters in the NFL. Yet, this past April, the Eagles signed another punter to compete for the position as Jones gets up there in age (he’s 36). Ryan Quigley comes over from the Jets where he saw success. Looking to oust Jones, Quigley has recorded 225 career punts for an average of 45.1 yards per attempt. Meanwhile, Jones, who had a very rough 2014 season played tremendously last year. He improved from 22nd in net average (2014) to third best (2015) in the NFL. It’s also interesting to note that Jones became the first punter in Eagles history to reach a net average of 45 yards or more in four straight games last season. He’s still got it. I’d be surprised if Quigley beat out Jones for the job.
It’s amazing to think there will actually be a long snapper battle, punter battle and also a kicker battle during camp. Parkey looks to take his old job back from Caleb Sturgis after last season’s injury. Parkey made history during his rookie season in 2014 as well as the Pro Bowl. That season he made 32 of his 36 field goal attemps (88.9 %) and 54-of-54 extra points. What Eagles fans really liked was his accuracy from a distance. He was 4 for 4 on field goal attempts of 50 yards or more. When Sturgis came in last season after Parkey went to the IR, he went 18 of 22 on his field goals attempts, which was, in fact, a career-best (81.8%). However, his four missed field goals were from less than 40 yards, and he missed a pair of extra points as well. Some may remember how Sturgis frustrated fans early last season, especially in the first game against Washington. He missed both an extra point and a 30-yard field goal in that game. The Eagles ended up losing, 23-20. Regardless of what one thinks about the kicker position, it’ll be an interest battle and one that I give the edge to Parkey. It’s his to lose.
Every aspect within the game of football is important. Yes, even special teams. The Eagles have won and lost games based on a made or missed field goal, field position due to punts and whether a snap is too low or high for a kicker. One of a few aspects of this 2016 Eagles team I’m confident in is their special teams unit that helped keep them in games last year. They continue to be a real force under Fipp this season.