Executive vice president and general manager Howie Roseman says the Eagles are a better football team after free agency and the draft. We're putting his claim to the test, breaking down the depth chart position by position to examine whether the roster really improved or actually took a step back this offseason.
Up next: Special teams, which has a surprising number of questions despite returning its three primary specialists.
The Eagles' return game has been a bit of a mess the past couple seasons. Darren Sproles is one of the greatest punt returners of all time, but he didn't handle kickoffs and missed a lot of time. Miles Sanders, Boston Scott and Corey Clement may be able to replace Sproles in the backfield, but none of the three were particularly stellar returning kicks.
Fortunately, the draft provided the Eagles with other options for both jobs. First-round pick Jalen Reagor seems like the obvious choice to take over for Sproles on punts. The speedy wideout scored two punt return touchdowns for TCU in 2019 — tied for most in the nation — and finished second with a 20.8 average. And, should he make the team, fifth-round receiver John Hightower could handle kicks, as he did for Boise State, where he averaged 24.6 yards per return with a touchdown.
Most of the Eagles' biggest special teams contributors are back, but there are a handful that may need to be replaced. Of course, that is the case every year.
On the trade block is Rasul Douglas, who played the third-highest number of snaps for the unit (57.5 percent), while fellow cornerback Craig James, who's on the roster bubble, was fifth at 52.2 percent. Both are especially noteworthy because, should Sidney Jones make the club, he plays very little special teams.
A little further down the list, though still with significant roles, were safeties Malcolm Jenkins (25.6 percent) and Marcus Epps (24.7 percent), one having departed, the other on the bubble.
Coverage units were neutral at best for the Eagles last season, so maybe it's not that big a deal. Still, some work lies ahead.
The Eagles are fortunate to have two of the top young specialists in the game, punter Cameron Johnston and long snapper Rick Lovato. Johnston doesn't get nearly enough love around the league. He can kick some real boomers, finishing third with 48.1 yards per punt in 2018, but is also a solid directional kicker. And the best thing you can say for Lovato, or any long snapper really, is you almost never hear his name mentioned. One negative though: Lovato doesn't know magic.
Three seasons into his career, it remains unsettled as to whether Jake Elliott is a good kicker — or at least a reliable one. He certainly hasn't been bad, hovering right around 84 percent on field goals every year, which put him right smack dab in the middle of the league at 16th in 2019. A 94 percent success rate on extra points was only good for 23rd, though.
I'll say this for Elliott: those percentages certainly can be improved upon, but you don't see the guy missing many clutch kicks when it matters. Still, there doesn't seem to be much improvement in the way of consistency.
Better or worse?
After several seasons fielding one of the best special teams units in the NFL, the Eagles have been uncharacteristically average for several seasons now. One of the primary reasons was the return game, which seems to have been addressed. Putting Reagor on punts would be an immediate upgrade, and it would help out a lot if Hightower can crack the roster and handle kicks.
There's always some uncertainty cycling new players into coverage units. Getting a spark in the return game goes a long way toward helping not just on special teams, but the offense and defense, too.
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