Seyi Ajirotutu was at his NFL crossroads. He didn't have a team. He didn't have a role. He knew that if he had another chance, he would have to re-invent himself to last in the NFL.
"I would say my fourth year. I wasn't in Training Camp anywhere. I went on workouts at a bunch of places and didn't get invited to a Training Camp until the third preseason game," said Ajirotutu. "That's where it kind of clicked and I said, 'I've got to be a monster on special teams and not take crap and be the person to apply stuff to my opponent and be that person that when you looked on film you said, 'Oh, there's No. 16. He's doing something out there again.' That's kind of when it clicked and I've just being doing it that way ever since."
That epiphany happened in 2013 when Ajirotutu was in San Diego. He went on to make that 53-man roster and he played in 14 games. A wide receiver by trade - one with 24 career receptions entering this season - Ajirotutu has made his mark, however, on special teams. He was a core member of the Chargers' special teams, was the Special Teams MVP there in 2014 and joined the Eagles as an unrestricted free agent this spring.
It didn't take Ajirotutu long to recognize that the Eagles take the kicking game especially seriously. Ranked first in the NFL on special teams based on a comprehensive analysis conducted annually by Rick Gosselin from the Dallas Morning News, the Eagles set out to improve their core for 2015. They added veteran linebacker Brad Jones and then Ajirotutu and E.J. Biggers, all players who have had success on special teams. First-round draft pick Nelson Agholor was taken because he impresses as a wide receiver, but he also had first-rate return skills at USC.
Training time is devoted to special teams as the Eagles look to take their game to an even higher level. The buy-in from the locker room is universal.
"It's kind of hard not to buy in, especially when you have a good leader like (special teams coordinator Dave) Fipp," Ajirotutu said. "We have good players all around and every day you know that you're fighting for your job and your chance be out on the field representing special teams."
There are some players in this league who just never understand that special teams can be their meal ticket. They want to catch touchdown passes and do the glory work. Those players don't last if their talents don't match their egos.
For players like Ajirotutu and Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman, special teams represent a chance to be on the field and turn a game around in a single play. All three want to be starters and play 60 snaps a game. It hasn't yet happened. In the meantime, both Ajirotutu and Maragos are in their sixth NFL season and Braman is in his fifth. Those are good careers, very good ones.
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"I embraced special teams when I started playing football," Braman said. "I knew that when I was invited to the NFL the only way I was going to make a roster and actually play and stick around was by playing special teams. When I came into the league in Houston I was behind Mario Williams, Connor Barwin, they had just drafted J.J. Watt, Brooks Reed was a second-round draft pick. There were a bunch of guys in front of me who, obviously, were going to play over me.
"It's always been fun. I've always been a fast, physical guy and those are the characteristics you need to be a good special teams player."
Yet there are plenty of very talented players who just don't get it. They don't want to make the sacrifice or play the role to run down the field and either block for a return or cover a kick.
"Those guys don't last long," Ajirotutu said. "They come and go."
At 5-10 and 200 pounds, Maragos isn't going to blow anybody away with his physique or his speed or his athletic ability. Nobody, however, defeats his will or his want-to. He figures out a way to be great on special teams, so much so that opposing teams single him out in coverage and try to double-team him on blocks.
It's the highest compliment for Maragos, who last season led the Eagles with 14 special teams tackles and was named a second alternate for the Pro Bowl.
"First day of Training Camp in San Francisco (2010) I knew that special teams would be where I would have to make it," Maragos said. "There are so many great athletes in the NFL and you just want to try to separate yourself any way you can. You try to perfect your craft as well as you can. So that's what I've always done. I prepare, hopefully, harder than anybody else out there."
Last season was historic for the Eagles, who had four returns (two kickoffs, two punts) for touchdowns and scored three more touchdowns on blocked kicks. The special teams turned games around. They dictated field position. They became the hunted team.
So what do they do for an encore?
"I think we just stick to the plan," Maragos said. "We don't worry about big plays, we don't worry about all the stuff that's going on. We just focus on the individual part of it and that collectively how that can help on special teams. Big plays usually happen off of that."
Said Braman: "We just keep doing the same thing. The standard has been set. We need to go out there every day and keep raising it."
They are off to a strong start. Kenjon Barner's 92-yard punt return for a touchdown in Sunday's preseason win over Indianapolis had the sidelines jumping at Lincoln Financial Field. This is a special teams roster that wants it all.
"That was fun, and that was just the first step," Maragos said. "It's a day-by-day thing. You always want to be better the next day. That's the goal here."