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A Boost For The Special Teams

Posted Mar 12, 2014

In the three-phase world of the NFL, the special teams are often the one most overlooked. The Eagles are making sure they've got the bases covered there, too ...

The 2013 Eagles did many things well with an offense that scored a franchise-record number of points and a defense that gathered together after substantial change and played physical, competitive football and kept the points allowed down while stepping up at the right time with big plays and takeaways.

The special teams? The Eagles ranked seventh in the NFL in net punting average (40.5 yards), allowed 8.0 yards per punt return (11th best in the NFL), Opponents started their possessions after kickoffs at the 24.3-yard line, giving the Eagels a ranking of 30th in the league in that category, and four times in 2013 opponents started possessions on the Eagles' side of the 50-yard line, second-most in the league.

While the return game just missed on some big gains, the coverage group clamped down, helped create favorable field position and aided the defense in keeping the points allowed down. Still, as the numbers show, there is room for improvement.

The Eagles understand the importance of great coverage, and the memory of Darren Sproles' 39-yard kickoff return -- plus a 15-yard penalty on the Eagles for a horse-collar tackle -- for New Orleans in the playoff game still smarts. The Saints started that final drive in the Wild Card Weekend contest at the Philadelphia 48-yard line, whittled away the final 4 minutes, 54 seconds off the clock and kicked a chip-shot field goal to end the Eagles' season.

So as the Eagles go about the process of improving their offense (retaining wide receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin) and their defense (adding safety Malcolm Jenkins in free agency) in this offseason, they are also addressing special teams.

That's why an under-the-radar addition, like the one on Wednesday when the team agreed to terms with Chris Maragos on a three-year deal, can hopefully pay big dividends when the season rolls around. Maragos was an outstanding special teams player with Seattle and a key piece for the Seahawks' core groups in the Super Bowl season of 2013. He's a player to add depth at safety, no doubt about it, and to be a standout contributor for Dave Fipp's coverage units.

Colt Anderson led the Eagles with 16 tackles on special teams last year. He's now an unrestricted free agent and there is no word on his next destination. Maragos, who led Seattle with 10 tackles on special teams last year and who rated as the fastest coverage player on the team, is bigger than Anderson and is every bit as fearless and physical.

"He kind of runs the whole show there," said Seattle special teams coach Brian Schneider prior to the Super Bowl. "He's very valuable tome, and that's something I always tell him, how he impacts all of our guys by the way he prepares."

The hopes is that Maragos continues to play at a high level and that the Eagles get another year better under Fipp in kick coverage. Linebacker Jason Phillips was signed last year in free agency after leading Carolina in special teams tackles in 2012, but Phillips missed all of 2013 after suffering a knee injury in training camp. He's at the NovaCare Complex every day working his way back to his pre-injury level, and if he gets there, the Eagles will have another key contributor in kick coverage.

Shortly after the Maragos announcement, the Eagles added Bryan Braman on a two-year deal. Braman is 6 feet 6 and 248 pounds and he's got some crazy in him. An outside linebacker and special teams player, Braman is one of the "big guys" the team wants for depth on defense and to help dominate on special teams.

Both Maragos and Braman stood out to the Eagles for their play on special teams. They weren't just good in Seattle and Houston, respectively. They were outstanding.

"You don’t find many players of Bryan’s size with the ability to run down the field and make plays on special teams,” said Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. “It’s an area of the game that we always have our eye on and look to improve. With his size, we also like his potential as a guy who can compete for spot as an outside linebacker.”

It's not the sexy way to approach free agency, but that's not what this time of the year is about. Now is the chance to bring in players who can help in each phase of the game, and by retaining punter Donnie Jones and signing Maragos and Braman, the Eagles think they've improved their special teams.

We're early in the process. Don't judge the roster until it's all in place. Each move means something as the Eagles put together a complex puzzle that isn't finalized until September, if ever.

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