Caleb Sturgis

Pressure's on for Eagles' rookie kicker

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Pressure's on for Eagles' rookie kicker

Nervousness comes with uncertainty.

As the Eagles drive down the field in key situations, kicker Jake Elliott tries to ready himself on the sideline. He has a routine. The rookie takes a practice kick before every first and third down. In between peeking over his teammates to see game action, the 5-foot-9 kicker tries to visualize his kick. If he thinks it might be a right hash kick, he moves the ball ever so slightly on the tee before booming it into the net.

The Eagles move the ball down the field, Elliott kicks into the net. The whole time the pressure continues to build and build. When will they call on him? How far will the kick be? What is the wind like?

Until it's his time to get on the field.

Then the nervousness fades away.

"As the kick's approaching, there's obviously a little nerves," Elliott said. "With every uncertain situation, there's going to be some nerves that come into play. You don't know what the yard line is going to be, you don't know this and that. Once you're jogging on the field, everything is kind of set."

The life of an NFL kicker is pretty much all pressure situations. They just get magnified in the playoffs.

As a rookie, this is obviously Elliott's first time in the postseason. The 22-year-old has had a wild rookie year. He was drafted by the Bengals in the fifth round but lost a competition and landed on their practice squad. The Eagles signed him when Caleb Sturgis suffered a serious hip injury and in his second game with the Birds, Elliott drilled a franchise-record 61-yard kick to beat the rival Giants. He's now the Eagles' kicker.

And he's ready for the playoffs.

"Yeah, absolutely," he said. "I'm just going to approach it like any other game. Obviously, the atmosphere is going to be a little more intense. I think I'm prepared for that. As long as I approach it like I have all season, I don't think it's going to be a problem."

Elliott is a pretty calm guy. You might even call his demeanor boring. He's not very excitable, which is probably an advantage as a kicker. Never get too high or too low.

He admitted that he doesn't even think about breathing techniques anymore. Elliott acknowledged that he'll take a few deep breaths to calm himself before a big kick, but it's no longer part of a conscious progression. It's built into his routine.

Sturgis has been impressed with Elliott all year long. He can't offer his younger teammate any advice about the playoffs because he's never been there either. But Sturgis just knows routine is the basis for comfort. He likened it to swinging well on a driving range, so when you get on the course, you're good to go.

"[Elliott's] been unbelievable," Sturgis said. "Especially the year he's had with how much success the team's had. Every game is so big for us and he's come out. Obviously, the Giants kick to start his time here and then the Oakland kick was huge. He's hit a lot of big kicks."

There's a good chance Saturday's game could come down to a field goal. The Falcons are favored by 2.5-3 points and playoff games always seem to be close.

On the other sideline this weekend will be a 16-year veteran in Matt Bryant, who has made 13 of 14 field goal attempts in the playoffs over his career. Bryant, of course, is the kicker who made that 62-yarder as time expired against the Eagles back in 2006 to give the Bucs a 23-21 win. This is Bryant's ninth season in Atlanta.

With all that experience, Bryant has been through these situations before. Heck, he kicked in the Super Bowl last year. Elliott is a fresh-faced rookie, but really, the life of a kicker is all pressure. He's built for this.

"It's a lot of not making the moment bigger than it needs to be," Elliott said. "I've done it a million times, whether it's in practice, in a game, whether it's in the fourth quarter, whether it's in the first quarter. I've done it enough so it's muscle memory and not make it bigger than it is."

Doug Pederson uncertain on Eagles' kickers heading into game vs. Bears

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Doug Pederson uncertain on Eagles' kickers heading into game vs. Bears

One kicker is getting better. One kicker just got hurt. One kicker isn’t even a kicker at all. Who’s going to kick Sunday? Maybe Caleb Sturgis, maybe Jake Elliott, maybe someone else. Definitely not Kamu Grungier-Hill. 
 
Does that clear everything up?
 
Head coach Doug Pederson revealed Monday that Elliott, the rocket-legged rookie, will be the Eagles’ placekicker long-term moving forward, but he also said he doesn’t know whether Elliott — who suffered a concussion Sunday night during the win in Dallas — will be available for this Sunday’s game at home against the Bears.
 
"We haven't made any decisions yet," Pederson said. "We still have a couple days before we have to make a decision."
 
Elliott replaced Sturgis, who suffered a quad strain in the opener against the Redskins and has been on injured reserve since. 
 
Ideally, the Eagles want Elliott to be cleared through the NFL’s concussion protocol and be able to kick Sunday so they can keep Sturgis on IR. 

If Elliott isn’t ready, they could activate Sturgis, who Pederson said is "close," but that would mean they would have to clear a spot on the 53-man roster for a guy who they don’t plan on keeping long-term. 
 
"He's continuing to rehab, he's begun a kicking regimen," Pederson said. "He's getting himself back to where he was prior to the injury. He's close. He's close."
 
If neither Elliott nor Sturgis is able to go, the Eagles could add a third kicker for a week or two, although that would also require keeping two kickers on the 53 (and another on IR).
 
"Again, you're talking about roster spots and making moves and things of that nature," he said. "We're not there yet. We'll continue these discussions the next couple days."
 
Most importantly, Pederson said despite Sturgis’ excellent track record since joining the Eagles, Elliott will be the team’s kicker once everybody is healthy. 
 
"I think so," Pederson said. "If he's healthy and he can play. You hate to disrupt that right now. I'd have to say yes to that one."
 
Sturgis is scheduled to be a free agent after the season. Elliott is under contract through 2018, and the Eagles control his rights through 2019.
 
Elliott, whom the Eagles signed off the Bengals’ practice squad in September, is 17 for 21 this year. He missed from 34 yards against the Cowboys Sunday night, although that miss came after he apparently suffered the concussion. 

Pederson said the concussion symptoms weren't discovered until after Elliott had attempted the field goal.
 
Elliott has made five of six attempts from 50 yards and out, including the franchise-record, game-winning 61-yarder against the Giants.
 
Sturgis is 7 for 11 as an Eagle from 50 yards and out. Including his years with the Dolphins, he's an 81.0 percent kicker, although with the Eagles he's made 84.8 percent of his field goal attempts — third-best in franchise history behind Cody Parkey (87.5 percent) and Alex Henery (86.0 percent).
 
"I think moving forward, as we continue to evaluate this week, we'll find out more in the next couple days with Jake, and I don't want to put myself in a box, but we'll keep all the options open," Pederson said.
 
"It kind of goes back to the same old thing. We still have a couple days here today and tomorrow to evaluate Jake and see where everybody's at. There's still a little while before we play Sunday."
 
There's one other option.

No, not letting Grugier-Hill kick. Going for two all the time.
 
Pederson — who's 9 for 12 as Eagles head coach on two-point conversion attempts — admitted he's thought about it.
 
"Yeah, I have," he said. "You always go into a game with a few (plays) in your pocket. You never expect that situation again like we had last night. But, yeah, you look at the numbers. If you're around 94, 95 percent on the extra point from the 15-yard line, your conversion rate should be in that 47, 48, 49 percent on a two-point conversion. So we look at all of that.
 
"We keep a couple extra plus-five red zone plays in our pocket for that situation. It just worked out, I think 3 for 4 last night. It's something we'll look at going forward."

Eagles hint at keeping Jake Elliott over Caleb Sturgis

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Eagles hint at keeping Jake Elliott over Caleb Sturgis

With Caleb Sturgis eligible to come off of injured reserve next week, the Eagles have given no indication that Jake Elliott’s job might be in jeopardy.

Elliott has been far from perfect of late, missing at least one field goal or extra point in each of the Eagles’ last three games. And while those kicks haven’t come back to haunt the team yet, it’s fair to wonder whether turning back to Sturgis might be an option.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Monday the club is “comfortable” with Elliott, but “nothing has been decided” with regard to Sturgis. “We'll just have to cross that bridge when we get there.”

We’re just about at the bridge. Time to decide.

As of Tuesday, the Eagles seemed prepared to work through the issues with Elliott.

“I tend to be more of an optimist,” said Eagles special team coach Dave Fipp, adding it’s easy to be critical. “If you’re willing as a coach or a person to accept some responsibility, and try to invest and work on finding a solution, you have a whole better chance.

“I believe the best in a guy, and that’s just the way I choose to look at it, but I believe the guy is going to overcome. He’s going to have success and be a great player."

In his second NFL game, Elliott delivered an Eagles victory over the Giants with a walk-off 61-yard field goal — the longest in franchise history. Up until that moment, however, the rookie kicker had been unreliable, missing one field goal in each of his first two contests.

Although, some initial jitters were probably to be expected. Signed off the Bengals' practice squad in September, Elliott joined the Eagles on a Tuesday and was kicking in a game on Sunday.

“It’s a tough transition to come in on a week’s notice and have a new snapper, a new holder and a kicker, and then do it on game day,” Fipp said. “And you can only practice so much during the week. Usually, these guys kick twice a week, so you have two days to get it in.”

Elliott settled in after the Giants game and was flawless on field goals and extra points over the next three. Even with the recent miscues, he’s made 17 of 20 field goals and 24 of 27 extra points for the season, and he set another Eagles record with four field goals of 50-plus yards in a season.

As far as Elliott’s recent struggles are concerned, those might not be as much of a factor in the Eagles’ decision as one would think. To begin with, another aspect of the battery could be at fault —maybe the hold, or the snap, based on an unconfirmed report the Eagles worked out long snappers this week.

Whatever the case, Fipp preached patience with the 22-year-old.

“The worst thing you can do with any kicker is overreact,” Fipp said. “If you’re always looking to replace that position, then you’re going to always be replacing that position.

“I think there are some coaches out there who are quick to get rid of the guy that they have, and I would say that you just have to make a smart decision. Take a step back, and make sure you’re making the best decision.

“Usually when you bring the guy in, you brought him in because he was the best player. Then if you get rid of him, now you’re saying you’re going to go with the second-best player? That never made a whole lot of sense to me.”

Of course, Fipp’s salient logic on kickers could easily apply to Sturgis as well.

Sturgis came to the Eagles in 2015 in much the same way as Elliott, as a midseason replacement. And like Elliott, Sturgis got off to a shaky start with the Eagles, but finished strong and won the competition for the job in training camp the following summer.

Last season, Sturgis made 35 of 41 field goals and 30 of 31 extra points. He was 3 for 3 on field goals and 1 for 2 with extra points in the 2017 opener, as well.

If Elliott wasn’t cutting it, the Eagles would be more than justified in giving Sturgis another shot.

“There’s certain standards that they have to perform up to, then you have to move on,” Fipp said. “But they all know that.”

Based on statistics alone, the comparison seems close. In reality, Elliott has a lot more working in his favor.

Elliott is six years younger than Sturgis, who as a five-year veteran, also commands a much larger salary. And while Sturgis was once a fifth-round draft pick, the same as Elliott, his NFL career as a whole has not been a model of consistency.

All signs point to the Eagles' sticking with Elliott, and it should be a slam dunk. But with Sturgis likely to wind up a free agent in a matter of days — it shouldn’t be long before he finds a new job — you can bet every and any Elliott slip-up will only draw more attention moving forward.