Dave Fipp

Miles Sanders isn't giving back Eagles' kick returner job

Miles Sanders isn't giving back Eagles' kick returner job

Even though the Eagles came into this season with Corey Clement as their primary kick returner, special teams coordinator Dave Fipp admitted this week that he actually thought Miles Sanders was their best option. 

Turns out he was right. 

And now that Sanders has taken over the job, don’t expect him to give it back. 

“With Corey being out, it kind of pushed him up,” Fipp said. “Excited and happy for him that he was able to make a play and show that he’s got some talent at that and can help us out. I think it also helps being able to justify playing him back there.” 

Clement injured his shoulder in the Atlanta game, so Sanders became the Eagles’ primary kick returner and he kept the job even after Clement returned to action last week. 

On Thursday night against the Packers, Sanders returned a kick 67 yards to give the Eagles a short field early in the second quarter. Five plays later, they scored their first touchdown of the game. That return was a huge momentum play in the eventual 34-27 win. 

The 67-yarder was the Eagles’ longest kick return since Josh Huff had a 98-yarder for a touchdown back in 2016. For reference, Clement’s longest-career return is 48 yards. 

Sanders, 22, has returned seven kicks this season for 183 yards. His average of 26.1 yards per return ranks second in the NFL among players with at least five attempts. 

“I like it, personally,” said Sanders, who returned 38 kicks at Penn State with an average of 20.1 yards per attempt. “Hopefully, [I will] break one one day.” 

The reason the Eagles went with Clement as their kick returner to start the season is because of Sanders’ offensive workload. Through a quarter of the season, Sanders leads the Eagles’ running back rotation in offensive snaps and touches. 

But with today’s rules, there just aren’t a lot of kick returns anymore. The Eagles returned a total of 33 kicks last season for an average of just over two per game. So, theoretically, there won’t be much more stress on Sanders. And, like we saw Thursday, the pay-off can be huge. 

“I would say that would be one way to argue it,” Fipp said through a laugh. 

Is that how he argues it? 

Yeah, Fipp says that too. But they have to manage every player’s role. And while there are fewer returns, that play does have some danger associated with it. For now, the Eagles think the reward outweighs the risk. 

Through four games, Sanders has 445 all-purpose yards. That’s the second-most ever for an Eagles rookie behind just DeSean Jackson in 2008. And the previous three NFL running backs to put up that many all-purpose yards in their first four games are Saquon Barkley, Kareem Hunt and Ezekiel Elliott. That’s elite company. If Sanders keeps his job as a return man — and he should — he can stay with that group.

So what makes Sanders good at returning? 

“He’s got a great feel for letting the play develop out in front of him,” Fipp said. “He’s got really good vision. The guy obviously has a really talented skillset. That’s why he was drafted. He can run, he’s got good feet, he’s elusive. He’s got speed. He’s a good player.”

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All three of Doug Pederson’s coordinators returning for 2019

All three of Doug Pederson’s coordinators returning for 2019

Doug Pederson on Tuesday afternoon confirmed all three of his coordinators will be retained this offseason. 

That means defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, offensive coordinator Mike Groh and special teams coordinator Dave Fipp will return for the 2019 season. 

“Yeah, my three coordinators will be back,” Pederson said.  

Let’s take a look at each guy individually: 

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz

Even though injuries devastated the secondary, Schwartz’s unit finished the season as the NFL’s 12th-best defense, giving up 21.8 points per game in the regular season. They gave up an average of 17.5 in their two playoff games. He’ll be back for his fourth season as defensive coordinator in 2019. 

Plenty of folks hated how little Schwartz blitzed this year, but it’s hard to blame him when guys who haven’t been on the roster all season are starting in the secondary. Only Malcolm Jenkins remained as a starting DB from the beginning of the year. Schwartz felt like he needed to give his inexperienced defensive backs as much help as they could get, which meant not sending blitzes. And that’s really been the foundation of his defense. He wants his front four to generate most of the pressure. At times is he too passive when that doesn’t happen? Yeah, probably. But the defense played fairly well all season. Those who want to pin the loss to the Saints on the defense, are misguided. They gave up just 20 points on the road to Drew Brees in the Superdome. That’s pretty good. 

The one are where Schwartz’s unit really struggled was on 3rd- and 4th-and-long situations. They Eagles gave up 19 first downs on those situations this season. That was the second-most in the NFL. 

It would make sense if Schwartz would like to one day return to a head-coaching post, but there aren’t a lot of NFL teams in a hurry to hire defensive coaches to run their teams. Most NFL owners are looking for innovative offensive minds, who are masters at the quarterback position. Maybe that will change, but until it does, Schwartz’s options will be limited. 

Offensive coordinator Mike Groh 

For a long time this season, it looked like Groh was a prime candidate to be a scapegoat for the offense’s struggles and the struggles of the team as a whole. It didn’t help in the public perception that he regularly didn’t inspire much confidence in his weekly news conferences. For much of the season, he was compared against former OC Frank Reich, whose legend grew much more after he left Philadelphia and became a successful head coach in Indianapolis. 

The Eagles’ offense looked stale and inconsistent early this season, but it was hard to figure out just how much to put on Groh. After all, he was an offensive coordinator under a head coach who runs the offense. Really, Pederson probably deserved more of the blame, but he was the constant and Groh was the new face after he was promoted from his post as wide receivers coach. 

Luckily for Groh, the offense started to play better toward the end of the season once Nick Foles got into the lineup, even though they scored just 30 points in their two playoff games. Groh will have a second season as offensive coordinator to help try to get the Eagles back to the high-flying offense they were during their Super Bowl year. 

Special teams coordinator Dave Fipp 

As much as the injuries hurt Schwartz this year, you can argue they hurt Fipp even more. Because for every starter that goes down, a backup gets promoted. And those backups are Fipp’s starters on special teams. So every little injury that happens across the board leads to a juggling act from Fipp. 

He’ll be back for his seventh season as special teams coordinator in 2019. 

Were the Eagles as dominant on special teams this year as they have been in the past? Probably not. They didn’t seem to have those big plays we’ve seen from them in years past. But they were still pretty good. Jake Elliott had a good season and it looks like they have something in young punter Cameron Johnston. Fipp has consistently kept his unit playing well for the last six years. 

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Eagles wisely thinking about using Golden Tate as a punt returner

Eagles wisely thinking about using Golden Tate as a punt returner

While the Eagles’ offensive coaches are probably salivating at the idea of getting a chance to work with newly-acquired Golden Tate, special teams coach Dave Fipp is happy to see Tate land in Philly too. 

Sure, Tate will have a huge role on offense for the rest of the season, but that doesn’t mean he won’t have a role as a returner too. 

“We’ve gone against him, we’ve seen him on film,” Fipp said Tuesday afternoon. “He’s a really competitive punt returner. We really like his skillset back there. He has a handful of kickoff returns. So I think there’s a role there at some point, somewhere, depending on who we have available to us. But he’s certainly a competitive player.”

The Eagles on Tuesday night released DeAndre Carter, who has been their primary returner this season. That move seems to signal that Darren Sproles is set to return — or perhaps Tate is ready to step in. 

Tate hadn’t been used much as a return man in recent years in Detroit, but he was a pretty good one over the first several years of his career. Using Tate in this role makes a lot of sense. 

It can’t be a bad idea to have a dynamic player like Tate get a few extra chances to touch the ball every game, especially if he really is an eight-game rental. 

• While he’s returned just seven career kickoffs, he has returned 92 career punts since joining the league in 2010. 

• His punt return average of 10.6 yards per return is eighth in the NFL since 2010 among players who have at least 50 returns. That’s actually higher than Sproles’ average (10.11) during that span. 

• And it’s higher than the average of Carter (10.3), who had been filling in as the punt returner in Sproles’ absence until he was released Tuesday. 

• Tate didn’t return any punts in 2014 or 2016, but in 2013 and 2015, he returned a total of 71. In 2013, he returned 51 for 585 yards. 

Fipp said using Tate as a returner will probably be determined by which players they have available. Once Sproles returns, Fipp said the punt return job is definitely his. 

Since Sproles has been out, Carter has done an admirable job as a returner. It’s hard not to root for a kid like Carter, who has overcome odds to not just make an NFL roster but find a role. But Fipp had already said Carter wouldn’t be the returner when Sproles returns. And now he's off the roster, which makes it seem like Sproles is close to a return.  

Either way, it seems like Fipp doesn’t mind the idea of getting a chance to use Tate as a returner. 

“You could always use dynamic players,” Fipp said. “There’s no question about that."

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