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Three-And-Out: Special Teams

Posted Jul 21, 2013

On Monday, the Eagles rookies and selected veterans report to the NovaCare Complex for the start of Training Camp. On Thursday, the rest of the team is scheduled to arrive in preparation for the first full-team practice on Friday. Here is the final installment of our "Three-And-Out" series previewing the three biggest questions that need to be answered at each position before the start of the season. Last, but certainly not least, here is a look at the special teams unit ...

1. Can Dave Fipp Flip The Fortune Of The Recent Special Teams?

New special teams coordinator Dave Fipp will oversee his own unit for the first time in his NFL career. In his last two years as the assistant special teams coach in Miami, the Dolphins ranked second in the NFL in 2011 and fourth in 2012, according to Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News who compiles each team's special teams stats. Miami was 24th in the NFL in special teams prior to Fipp's arrival in 2010.

The Eagles special teams, meanwhile, ranked 28th in the NFL in 2012. The Eagles ranked last with four giveaways on special teams last year and were also last in punts inside the 20-yard line (see Question No. 3).

Just from the spring OTAs and minicamp, there is already a difference in how new head coach Chip Kelly approaches special teams. Kelly incorporates special teams periods early and often throughout practice instead of making it the last thing to be worked on when players are mentally and physically fatigued.

It will be interesting to see if Kelly brings the Swinging Gate to Philadelphia with him. FishDuck.com, which has thoroughly studied Kelly's Oregon teams, breaks down the extra point formation which gives the look of a two-point conversion attempt with the flexibility of aligning for the point-after try.

WR DeSean Jackson

There's also the question of what will be at Fipp's disposal in terms of talent and not just the specialists or the returners. Two-time team special teams MVP Colt Anderson is back on a one-year deal. Also back are linebacker Casey Matthews, who played for Kelly at Oregon, cornerback Brandon Hughes and safety David Sims, who all ranked in the top six in special teams production points last season. Another key player to watch will be safety Kurt Coleman, who has been more of a focal point on defense the past few seasons.

In addition, the Eagles should have more to work with utilizing elements of a 3-4 scheme as there will likely be more linebackers on the roster. Then again, Fipp was in Miami as the Dolphins transitioned from a 3-4 to a 4-3 last season and still had success on special teams.

2. Who Will Comprise The Returners?

It has been apparent all offseason that the Eagles want to get DeSean Jackson more involved in the punt return game in 2013. A Pro Bowl return man in 2009, Jackson has four career punt return touchdowns including the Greatest Play in NFL History, the Miracle at the New Meadowlands.

However, Jackson's role on special teams has diminished in recent years. After 20 returns in 2010, Jackson has had 18 in the past two years with only one all of last season.

Then again, Damaris Johnson set the franchise record with a 98-yard punt return for a touchdown at Dallas last season, one of the lone highlights of the entire season. Thanks to that huge return, Johnson averaged 11.2 yards per return on 26 attempts. Johnson showed the physical skill set to be a dynamic returner, but he made some questionable decisions in terms of when to return deep punts.

Jackson and Johnson aren't the only ones in the mix for the punt returner job. Jeremy Maclin, Russell Shepard, Nick Miller and Felix Jones were among those who got looks as well.

At kickoff returner, Johnson is also in line to be the top guy along with last year's primary returner Brandon Boykin. Johnson did not have a kickoff return last season, but was a prolific kickoff returner in college at Tulsa scoring two touchdowns. Boykin averaged 23.0 yards per kickoff return for the Eagles as a rookie in 2012 including a long of 44 against the Carolina Panthers. Boykin finished fifth in franchise history for most kickoff return yards by a rookie. A freak athlete, Boykin was a return star at Georgia tying the SEC record for most kickoff return touchdowns in a career with four.

3. The All-Pro Or The Rookie?

After Chas Henry and Mat McBriar combined for just 15 punts inside the 20-yard line last season, the Eagles went in a totally different direction in 2013 signing two-time All-Pro Donnie Jones and rookie free agent Brad Wing, an All-America punter in 2011 and the most prolific punter in LSU history.

This will be a battle to watch throughout Training Camp. The winner will have the chance to help the defense craft out more favorable field position and also be enlisted to assist kicker Alex Henery as the holder.

It's tough for first-year punters and kickers to latch on, but at the same time the potential might be too good to pass up. Then again, if Jones can regain the All-Pro touch, they might have to push pause on the rookie's career.

Either way, the Eagles are in position to be much improved at the punter spot in 2013.

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