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Fan-Demonium: Understanding The Plan

Posted Mar 15, 2014

Free agency began on Tuesday and the Eagles jumped right in. They were active all week, acquiring five new players and re-signing punter Donnie Jones. I didn't anticipate that much activity, but I do like what they did and how they did it.

I wrote last week that the Eagles would be "selective shoppers" and that is exactly what they were. Fans love it when a team runs out and signs a bunch of big names, but those signings are more random. No team can head into free agency expecting to sign three or four star players. The Eagles had very specific targets and went and got those players.

The point of being specific is to find the right guys for your scheme and your team. No one questions the fact that Jairus Byrd is one of the best ballhawks in the NFL. He can sit back deep, read the quarterback and go make plays on the ball. The problem is that Byrd needs to line up very deep most of the time. Bill Davis prefers interchangeable safeties. Instead of strong safety/free safety, Davis prefers to think of them as left and right. Byrd didn't fit that description. Malcolm Jenkins did.

Jenkins was my preference among the free agent safeties, largely due to his versatility. He can play deep like Byrd. Jenkins can also come down in the box and stuff the run. He can line up in the slot and cover man-to-man. He will give Davis a versatile weapon on the back end.

I think Jenkins is also very much the type of person that Chip Kelly is looking for. He was a winner in college and the NFL, starting for a Super Bowl champion as a rookie. Jenkins has been a captain for the Saints. He is smart and tough. This is the kind of person you feel comfortable paying good money to in order to help you win games. He didn't come to the Eagles for a mega-payday. He doesn't have a big ego. Jenkins is very much a team guy and those are the kind of people Kelly needs to make his program work.

Jenkins will provide leadership for the secondary. That's important. We all remember how great it was to have Brian Dawkins back there running things for more than a decade. Jenkins isn't anywhere close to Dawkins in terms of talent, but he can be the same kind of leader. The secondary needs someone out there getting people lined up correctly. While Jenkins is new to the scheme, he's worked in several different defenses as a Saint. He can learn quickly and adapt to new ideas.

After adding Jenkins, the Eagles focused on special teams. That was an area that needed help. The first step was simply retaining Jones. The Eagles had to wait for free agency to start before they could re-sign him due to a rules technicality. Jones was terrific last year and there was no question that the team wanted him back.

Then it was time to get some outside help. The Eagles signed linebacker Bryan Braman and safety Chris Maragos to come in and boost the coverage units. This is the kind of savvy move that some casual fans will underrate. Special teams are hugely important to the success of a football team. The problem is that there aren't any simple stats to show impact. A guy who gets 10 sacks or scores 10 touchdowns is easy to appreciate. Someone who flies downfield, moves through traffic and helps cover punts/kicks is harder to quantify. The player might not even make a ton of special teams tackles, but could be an impact player to those units.

Good special teamers are going to make their share of tackles. There are also going to be plays where they force a fair catch or cause a returner to go out of bounds prior to contact. Maybe the cover guy gets down field in a hurry on a regular basis and opposing returners become hesitant about bringing the ball out of the end zone on kickoffs. There are lots of different ways a good special teamer can influence plays even without making the specific tackle.

You don't have to look any further than the playoff loss to the Saints to see how important special teams can be. The Eagles failed to down a punt at the 1-yard line and later gave up a long kickoff return that set up the winning field goal. Those were big plays that affected the game in a major way.

I haven't studied Braman or Maragos as blockers, but hopefully they will help in that area as well. The Eagles returners last year were disappointing. Part of that is on the returners, part is on the blocking. All it takes is holding a block for an extra second and you might get a big return.

Lawlor

Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com and was a contributor to the Eagles Almanac.

On Thursday, the Eagles caught me by surprise when they traded for Darren Sproles, the man who had the long kickoff return to beat the Eagles in the playoffs. I had been asked by some readers if the Eagles would have interest in Sproles. My answer was "no." He's 31 years old. Like most guys that age, his level of play is going to start to decline. I also made the mistake of thinking of him as a running back. The Eagles are loaded there so adding an older player didn't make sense to me.

In retrospect, I should have recognized that Kelly would see Sproles as a player and not a position. He still is very good as a receiver. You can throw to him out of the backfield or line him up in the slot or even out wide. I think Sproles might be getting some of Jason Avant's old reps. In that case, the move to add Sproles makes total sense. Kelly loves to spread out a defense and get the ball to weapons in space. Sproles is one of the best space players in the NFL.

I also think Sproles will get a lot of work as a returner, on punts and kickoffs. His return numbers were down last year, but I think the Eagles will dial down his number of touches on offense to see if that can help him as a returner. Sproles was on the field for 342 offensive snaps last year. Eagles backups Bryce Brown and Chris Polk combined for 228 snaps. Sproles played in 15 games so that is an average of 23 snaps per game. He had 124 offensive touches. That's a lot for a role player. I don't think he'll get that much offensive work for the Eagles. Maybe having fresher legs can help him get back to being a weapon as a kick returner. That's definitely a spot where the Eagles need a boost.

After trading for Sproles, the Eagles gave him a two-year extension. That shows you that this isn't a casual move. They like him quite a bit and have a specific plan on how to use him. When it comes to offense and how to use playmakers, Kelly has earned my trust. I'm excited to see how he does use Sproles and how effective Sproles can be.

The final move of the week was the addition of cornerback Nolan Carroll. This caught me off-guard, but for a good reason. I thought Carroll would be too good to sign with the Eagles. He's coming to Philly for a chance to compete for a starting job. I figured Carroll would look around the league and see if someone would give him a starting job.

The Eagles have a pair of veteran cornerbacks in Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher. Both were effective starters in 2013. The problem was that the Eagles had no depth. They like keeping Brandon Boykin in the slot. Roc Carmichael saw some action, but has yet to prove he could be an effective starter if needed. Enter Carroll.

The Eagles still need to add young talent to the mix and will likely take a corner in the upcoming draft. The team now has three solid outside corners in Williams, Fletcher and Carroll. They also have better depth overall. Carroll can play the slot if Boykin gets hurt. Jenkins can also help if needed. The Saints used him in the slot a lot last year. He also lined up at outside corner in some looks. The Eagles got lucky that the cornerbacks were mostly healthy last year. They can't count on that happening every year so it was important to find a player like Carroll. He also happens to be a solid special teams player and will offer help to that group. 

The Eagles aren't done yet. I don't know if they'll make a big move or if they'll stick to finding key role players to fill in the gaps on the roster. I'd still like to see another safety added to the mix and I would like a pass-rushing linebacker as well. It doesn't look like any top guys are out there, but the Eagles could use a good backup as well.

I know the Eagles didn't make a Jevon Kearse/Jon Runyan/Asante Samuel-type of splash signing, but I really like what the team did. They targeted specific players who will help specific areas of need on the team. Free agency is about filling holes and going for an upgrade here or there. You don't want to load up on starters through free agency. The draft is still the key way to build a team.

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