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Offseason Preview: Special Teams

Posted Jan 22, 2013

The special teams will be led by a new coordinator in 2013 after Bobby April left to take the same role with the Oakland Raiders. In the last entry of our offseason preview series, we analyze the special teams units.

End Of Season Depth Chart: For the Eagles’ special teams players, the 2012 season was filled with change. The Eagles employed two new return specialists, a new punter and a slew of new players. And while there were some positives, the special teams units were inconsistent throughout the season.

Back in Training Camp, the Eagles began using two rookies – Brandon Boykin and Damaris Johnson –  at kick returner and punt returner, respectively. Both were electrifying in those roles in college, and both seemed like no-brainers as far back as Training Camp. The rookies did enjoy some success as returners in their first NFL season, but those successes were few and far between.

Boykin finished the year with 1,037 return yards, good for seventh in the league, but he failed to score a touchdown and wasn’t able to crack a return longer than 44 yards. Boykin’s most memorable moment in the return game came on a play the record books won’t remember. Against the Saints in Week 9, Boykin appeared to take a kick return upfield, only to lateral the ball to wide receiver Riley Cooper, who was lying down in the end zone. Cooper took the pass in for a long touchdown, but the play was negated when the replay showed Boykin had actually thrown a forward pass. Throughout the course of the season, Boykin split time with running back Bryce Brown, who took over as the Eagles’ primary kick returner toward the end of the year. Brown finished the year with eight returns for 156 yards.

At punt returner, Damaris Johnson finished the season with 291 punt return yards, but the highlight of his season came during the Eagles’ Week 13 primetime matchup against the Cowboys. Johnson took a punt return 98 yards for a score, and now owns the record for longest punt return touchdown in franchise history.

The theme of inconsistency also followed the coverage units. The Eagles gave up 1,012 total kickoff yards, and 24.7 yards per return. Special teams ace Colt Anderson continued his stellar play, racking up a team-high 166 special teams points. But he was one of the few special teams playmakers, and his role was reduced once he earned a starting role on defense late in the year.

As for the specialists, Alex Henery had another excellent season as the Eagles’ kicker. He completed a career-high 27-of-31 field goal attempts, which was good for an 87.1 completion percentage. That also makes Henery’s year the fourth-most accurate in team history. Even more impressive than those stats are the conditions under which Henery performed. The Eagles asked their punter to also double as the holder, but the Eagles went through a punter competition during Training Camp. Though incumbent Chas Henry won the job in preseason over Mat McBriar, Henry was eventually released in favor of the veteran McBriar before Week 4.

Rounding out the specialist group is long snapper Jon Dorenbos, who has been a model of consistency since arriving in Philadelphia in 2006. Though he battled a high-ankle sprain midseason, he didn’t miss any time and continued his excellent play.

As former special teams coordinator Bobby April noted throughout the season, good special teams play would likely have helped the Eagles win more games. Though new head coach Chip Kelly is known more for his offense, improving the special teams units will be imperative. If he can improve the holes in coverage and find a way to add juice to the return game, the Eagles could upgrade their special teams groups from a concern to a strength.

Player To Watch In Offseason: Coming out of Georgia, Boykin was touted as one of the best returners in college football. And while he did show some of the skill that earned him the 2011 Paul Horning Award, given each year to the most versatile player in college football, he wasn’t able to do so consistently. Boykin said he felt his game improve as the season went on, but a full offseason to practice his craft should help him take that next step.

Free Agent To Be: Dorenbos is the lone free agent. A 10-year vet, he is one of the longest-tenured players on the team.

Best Performance: Though Johnson only returned two punts in the Eagles’ Week 13 game against the Cowboys, he made them count. He took the second kick 98 yards for a touchdown, the team’s only return score of the season. It set a team record and tied for the third longest in league history.

Noteworthy Stat: Between Weeks 2 and 14, Henery completed a franchise-record 22 consecutive field goals.

Previous Offseason Previews:
Quarterback
Backfield
Wide Receiver
Offensive Tackle
Guard/Center
Defensive End
Defensive Tackle
Linebacker
Cornerback
Safety

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