After an impressive 2013 season, will Donnie Jones return to Philadelphia in 2014? Will the Eagles bring in competition for Alex Henery? How can the Eagles improve their return game in 2014? Let's take a look.
This is the final part of an 11 part series, this part will focus specifically on the special teams' players on the 2013 Philadelphia Eagles and how the team can improve heading into the 2014 season. Each part will focus on a specific positional group with 11 in all (QB, RB, WR, TE, OL, DL, ILB, OLB, CB, S and ST [K, P, KR and PR]). Now let's talk Eagles' special teams.
2013 Eagles' Special Teams players: Kicker Alex Henery, punter Donnie Jones, primary kick returner Damaris Johnson and primary punt returner DeSean Jackson. (Brandon Boykin and Brad Smith will also be discussed briefly)
How'd they do?
Alex Henery: Ranked #31 overall kicker according to Pro Football Focus. Made 24 of 30 attempted field goals (80.0% made). Of 90 kickoff attempts, forced a touchback just 37 times which is #20 overall for kickers.
For the most part, Alex Henery was a decent kicker in 2013. But he had a tendency of missing kicks that ended up having a huge effect on the outcome of the game. He struggled from 40+ yards, ranking #29 overall among kickers from that range.
But Henery didn't just struggle with field goals, he was very inconsistent on kickoffs. He couldn't force a touchback when the team needed it most. Against the Minnesota Vikings in week 15, the Eagles had to use squib kicks to keep the ball out of Cordarrelle Patterson's hands because they didn't trust Henery to get a touchback inside a dome! That says a lot about Henery and the lack of trust the coaching staff had in him.
Henery also failed to kick the ball deep on the kickoff following a late touchdown against the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs. Darren Sproles was able to return the ball for a huge gain and it really shifted momentum in the game. I believe the Eagles should and will either sign or draft a kicker that they can rely on throughout the season and challenge Henery in training camp.
Overall Grade: C-. Henery was solid inside of 40 yards but was far too inconsistent from long range and on kickoffs, he has to be challenged this off-season and win his job back.
Donnie Jones: Ranked #21 overall punter according to Pro Football Focus. Averaged 44.9 yards per punt, 41.0 net yards per punt, 34 punts inside the opposing 20-yard line and 18 punts downed.
When the Eagles signed Donnie Jones, many people didn't even care. They thought "oh, he's just a punter" and that the signing didn't really matter much. But Jones was a key part of the Eagles' success in 2013. He made fans realize how important punting is in the big picture. Jones made clutch punts whenever he had too.
Against the Washington Redskins in week 11, Jones boomed a punt 70-yards towards the end of the game. It forced the Redskins to travel the majority of the field to win the game, which they ultimately couldn't do. Jones was a standout player in 2013, but is set to hit the market as a free agent. I believe he'll spend the rest of his career in Philadelphia as long as they can get a deal done.
Overall Grade: A+. Jones was everything the Eagles wanted and more as a punter. He was able to put the ball wherever he wanted it to be, especially in clutch situations.
Damaris Johnson: Ranked #35 overall kick returner according to Pro Football Focus. 17 kick returns for 441 yards, averaging 25.9 yards per return.
Although there was a rotation for the second half of the season, Damaris Johnson was the primary kick returner for the Eagles for a majority of the season. He struggled a lot with judging when to and when not to return kicks. Johnson has explosive ability but he wasn't confident in his abilities, well that's how it seemed at times.
He didn't seem confident and would sometimes pass up on a return that he should've taken. He also struggled as a punt returner as well, maybe he let that affect him too much when he was returning kicks. Either way, Johnson likely won't be back in 2014 and should be replaced by a much more consistent return threat.
Overall Grade: C. When he did choose to return a kick or punt, he did a decent job. But he didn't do it often enough and was far too hesitant to be a full-time return man for Philadelphia.
DeSean Jackson: Ranked #22 punt returner according to Pro Football Focus. 14 punt returns for 71 yards and an average of 5.1 yards per return.
DeSean Jackson didn't return a single punt until week 9, after Damaris Johnson struggled for the first half of the season. Jackson didn't look like his old self when he was returning punts in 2013 either. He looked disinterested at times and tended to just bounce from side to side and eventually be brought down for a minimal game.
I believe the Eagles would rather just save Jackson for offense and he might feel the same way. It doesn't make sense to put Jackson at risk back there, especially when he's not as effective in the return game as he has been in the past. The Eagles should look in the draft or free agency to bring in a return specialist and let Jackson focus on offense.
Overall Grade: D. Jackson didn't really look like he wanted to return punts and struggled to make the big plays he has been known for. He bounced around to much instead of using his speed and taking what was there.
The Eagles also have Brandon Boykin and Brad Smith on their roster heading into 2014. Boykin has shown explosive abilities as a kick returner but I believe the Eagles would rather save him for defense since he's a key contributor as their slot cornerback. Smith should get a look as the primary kick returner in 2014. He did a good job returning kicks for the Eagles down the stretch in 2013.
I believe the Eagles will re-sign Donnie Jones, so that takes care of the punting game. But I believe the Eagles will sign or draft a couple of players that can come in and bring competition to the kicker and both return spots. Chip Kelly preaches about how important competition is and they definitely could use some on special teams.
I don't really believe the Eagles will sign a kicker in free agency because most of the players that were available, have re-signed with their old team. But there are a couple of names that could help in both the punt and kick return games.
Former Kansas City Chief Dexter McCluster was the #2 overall ranked punt returner according to Pro Football Focus. McCluster is an explosive player that 12.2 yards per punt return and also had 2 punt return touchdowns. Chip Kelly could also use him as a weapon in the backfield and slot on offense as well. McCluster is an interesting name to take a look at and would help the Eagles a ton.
Former New Orleans Saint Darren Sproles is widely known for his receiving ability and versatility as a running back. But he is actually a solid punt and kick returner as well. He may not have the explosiveness of McCluster but he is consistent and a much better player on offense as well. Sproles could be a dangerous addition to Kelly's offense and an upgrade in the return game as well. Although his age and potential price might be a problem.
2014 NFL Draft:
The 2014 NFL Draft is where I believe the Eagles could add some competition at kicker for Alex Henery. They wouldn't spend a pick on a kicker before round 7 but they could also sign an undrafted player as well. There are also a few players that could greatly improve the Eagles returning game as well.
Although I have already talked about him in the running back part of this series, Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas would be a lethal weapon for the Eagles in the return game as well. He had five total return touchdowns in his three years at Oregon and the Eagles could of course use him on offense as well. Thomas has already said he would love to reunite with former coach Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, and it just might be a match made in heaven.
Tulane's Cairo Santos may just be the best kicker in this year's draft class. Although he struggled this past season, going just 16 of 23 for field goals, he had an outstanding season in 2012. He went 21 of 21 on field goals during the 2012 season including 12 of 12 from 40+ yards and a long field goal of 57 yards. Santos also excels on kickoffs, with 47 touchbacks on 62 kickoff attempts for a touchback percentage of 75.81%. Santos should be available in the seventh round or even undrafted and I believe he'd be perfect competition for Alex Henery in training camp.
That's all for the final part of Evaluating the Eagles. I hope you all enjoyed the series and truly appreciate everyone taking the time to read it. Make sure to keep a look out for more of my work, especially with free agency starting tomorrow!
If you'd like, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @Anthony_DiBona. Thanks for reading!