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Position review: special teams

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Special players for a special unit

Philadelphia Eagles v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

This week we will do our yearly position reviews. Rather than a stay or go, which we don’t have any control over, or a nitpicking letter grade, we’re going to do something a little different, a simple thumbs up/thumbs down.

We’ll start with the actual starters of a football game, the special teams. We’ll do individual players in all of these reviews, but with special teams we’ll look at the four open field units as a whole first because so many players contribute to special teams, then get into players.

Units

For the second time in the last three seasons under Dave Fipp, the Eagles special teams were 1st in DVOA. As Eagles fans know, Dave Fipp is one of the best special teams coaches in the league, if not the best.

Punt return

The Eagles had the fewest punt returns in the league, with only 19. Nine teams had at least double that amount. But when they did return a punt, they were extremely efficient, finishing 2nd in the league in yards per return with 12.9.

Punt coverage

Punt returns against were the one slip up by Eagles special teams in 2016, and even then they were still good. They finished ‘only” 10th in punt returns against, because they gave up a punt return touchdown. Over the last five years between 9 and 14 different teams give up a punt return touchdown. They happen. Among teams that gave up a touchdown, the Eagles had the best yards per return against.

Kick return

The Eagles had the best kick return unit in the league, bar none. They finished tied for 1st in yards per return, 1st in kick return DVOA and were the only team with multiple kick return touchdowns, which they got from two players, Josh Huff and Wendell Smallwood. They weren’t reliant on a great kick returner, they were simply a great unit.

Kick coverage

They were nearly as good on kickoff coverage as well. They were 3rd in the league in yards per return against, and 1st in DVOA.

Players

We’ll look at players who played all or virtually all their snaps on special teams. Players who saw real playing time on offense or defense, such as Trey Burton and Jaylen Watkins will be reviewed at their offensive or defensive positions.

Donnie Jones

Jones had the easiest 16 game season of his career with just 63 punts this season, the fewest since his rookie season in 2004 when he appeared in 9 games. He finished 16th among 34 punters in yards per punt, but more importantly 11th in net punting average (which takes into account touchbacks). One third of his punts were downed inside the 20 yard line, virtually the same rate as Colts Pro Bowler Pat McAfee. Not his best season, but a very good one. Jones will be 37 next year and just signed a new contract extension that includes a small amount of guaranteed money for 2017.

Verdict: Thumbs up. We already know Jones will be back, and deservedly so.

Caleb Sturgis

When Caleb Sturgis was signed mid-season in 2015 to replace Cody Parkey, it was a curious move. In his two years in Miami he converted just 77.5% of his field goal attempts, including just 46% of his kicks from 50+ yards.

Then Dave Fipp got a hold of him, and in nearly as many attempts as he had in Miami, Sturgis has made 84.1% of his field goals, including 60% of his kicks from 50+ yards.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Dave Fipp seems to have turned Sturgis into a legitimate kicker, which they haven’t had since David Akers left.

Bryan Braman

No Eagle has played more special teams snaps over the past three years than Braman. But that may soon change. He is a free agent this year, and was not among the special teamers signed to a contract extension during the season. He may still be back, but the Eagles or Braman seem content to wait and see what unfolds in the spring. But the most used player on the best special teams in the league is undoubtedly a strong contributor.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Braman does his job very well, but his role could be filled by someone younger, cheaper, and who can take a spot on a positional depth chart on defense. Don’t be surprised if he’s not retained.

Chris Maragos

Along with Jones, Maragos also got a contract extension in November, and it was well deserved. Maragos is the best special teams player on the best special teams in the league. He deserves Pro Bowl recognition for it.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Hopefully he will get the recognition he deserves on a national level next year.

Najee Goode

After being a roster cut to get to 53 players, Goode was brought back the day before the regular season opener to replace the injured Trey Burton on special teams. With the third most snaps on special teams for the Eagles, the team certainly got use out of the roster spot. But Goode will be 27 next season, isn’t a contributor on defense, and the team also added Kamu Grugier-Hill at the start of the season, giving them two special teams-only linebackers.

Verdict: Thumbs down. Goode is a... fine player but if the Eagles are going to build through the draft then his roster spot is better used by a rookie. Nothing against Goode but they should move on.

Kamu Grugier-Hill

Grugier-Hill turned a few heads in Patriots training camp with his special teams play, and his release at the end of the preseason was a surprise considering his play and that he was a 6th round draft pick. Claimed on waivers, he showed well in his 12 games, playing in at least 20% of snaps in 9 of those games. Three of the four games he missed with a hamstring injury. His fourth inactive game was a curious one, he was a healthy scratch for the second Redskins game. That was the game immediately following Doug Pederson inadvertently calling out his team for effort. Coincidence, or a benching? Either way, he returned the next week and resumed his usual duties.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Rebuilding teams don’t just need young starters. Cheap, young role players are important too.

Terrence Brooks

Another waiver-wire pickup after 53 man roster cuts with an eye on special teams, Brooks also missed time with a hamstring injury. He played 37.6% of snaps in just 11 games, and in his only time on defense caught a game sealing Eli Manning interception.

Verdict: Thumbs up. At 25 and in the last year of his contract, Brooks shouldn’t be guaranteed anything beyond a 90 man roster spot in 2017, but we’ll give him a boost for picking off Eli.

Jon Dorenbos

The third special teams player to sign a contract extension in November, Dorenbos’s season started memorably as he became a star on America’s Got Talent, and ended forgettably as he was put on IR after a cheap shot broke his wrist. It ruined another solid season and fantastic story.

Verdict: Reach into your pocket and pull out a piece of paper with a thumbs up drawn on it.