When the 2019 Eagles season is over the debrief will state some obvious needs, such as wide receiver. One that isn’t so obvious is a special teams ace. Two would be even better, but let’s not get greedy.
Chip Kelly got a lot of things wrong, but his commitment to special teams produced excellent units that were significant contributors to wins. The backbone of those units were Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman, and since their departures, Maragos by injury and Braman by choice, Eagles special teams have been weak.
Maragos and Braman joined the Eagles in 2014, and the raw stats of kickoff and punt units during and after their tenure show a stark contrast.
Special Teams Splits
A game by game visualization illustrates their effectiveness.
This doesn’t factor in field goals and extra points, and with them blocked or tipped field goals and extra points, which are big plays. We’re looking at “hidden yardage” type of plays, the kinds that can aid an offense or defense with field position.
We see a few noteworthy points. In 2013 under Dave Fipp Eagles special teams hovered around average, with a few bad games. Then the 2014 offseason brought in Donnie Jones, Chris Maragos, and Bryan Braman. Results were immediate, and continued until Maragos was injured in 2017. Since then, the Eagles are almost as bad as they were good.
That special teams were still very good in 2016 shows that the decrease isn’t due to coaching but to talent. Maragos, Braman, Burton, and Najee Goode were the top four players in playing time in 2015 and 2016. In 2017, the top four were Burton, Goode, Kamu Grugier-Hill, and Corey Clement.
Additionally, Darren Sproles played just 15 games over the past three seasons and the team has had trouble replacing him as a punt returner. While an improvement in punt returns would be a welcome boost, the Eagles have struggled in all areas. And Maragos and Braman aren’t the only high use players that have departed, they were supplemented by James Casey, Burton, and Goode.
The Eagles know the value Maragos and Braman had. They brought back Braman for the Super Bowl run (though he didn’t have much of an impact) and had Maragos speak at the parade, a testament to how they valued him, along with keeping him all of last year despite never being close to playing.
To attempt to fill the void, LaRoy Reynolds, Rudy Ford, TJ Edwards, and DJ Alexander were all acquired to play special teams, along with Kamu Grugier-Hill, Mack Hollins, and Nate Gerry. The team has even attempted to address the issue during this season, shipping out Johnathan Cyprien, who played over two thirds of special teams snaps in his four games, for Duke Riley, who has replaced his usage. And they cut Andrew Sendejo, who played the third most special teams snaps, and his replacement, Marcus Epps, immediately slid into a special teams role. But all of these players are complementary players to missing cornerstones.
This offseason will be significant. 2020 will be the first season where Carson Wentz is no longer a contract bargain (though his 2020 cap hit is still good value and until this season have spent significant money on his backups, negating some of the savings), and with it should come changes to how the Eagles shape their roster. Finding the next Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman, who at their most expensive combined for a cap hit of less than $3 million, would be a low cost way to improve the team.