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Eagles need their special teams to be special again

Special teams coordinator Dave Fipp had a voice in the Eagles' roster decisions last weekend. Now he needs the players he helped keep make key contributions.

The Eagles are looking for big things on special teams from safety Rudy Ford.
The Eagles are looking for big things on special teams from safety Rudy Ford.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

When the Eagles made their cuts last weekend and reduced their roster to 53 players, general manager Howie Roseman had the final say, with significant input from head coach Doug Pederson.

But don’t discount the influence of special teams coordinator Dave Fipp on many of the decisions.

“The great thing about this organization is we’ve got great leadership in Howie and coach Pederson, and those guys, we do have a lot of collaboration,” said Fipp, who is entering his eighth season as special teams boss.

“I think, for myself, I obviously appreciate that. I think we have a voice. I definitely don’t make the cuts and the final decisions, but we definitely have a voice.”

Fipp has earned that voice. He’s one of the league’s most respected special teams coaches. In the last six years, the Eagles' special teams never have finished lower than 15th in Rick Gosselin’s NFL special teams rankings, which take in data from 20 different special teams categories.

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They were ranked first twice (2014 and 2016) and finished fifth another time (2015). They slipped to 15th last year, which was their lowest ranking since 2013, Fipp’s first year in Philly, when they were ranked 18th.

Roseman said the other day that special teams are “going to be a big unknown as we get started here” because of the cancellation of the preseason games and the scarcity of “live” special teams drills in training camp.

But he is optimistic that some of the young, fast players the Eagles selected in the April draft – like wide receivers Jalen Reagor and John Hightower and linebackers Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley – and others that they kept on their 53-man roster primarily because of their special teams value, like safeties Rudy Ford and Marcus Epps and cornerback Craig James, will play well for Fipp.

“We’ve been in games since I’ve been here where those first couple of games, we’ve maybe lost a game because of special teams,” the Eagles GM said. “So we wanted to protect that this year. That’s a big reason why Rudy is on the team. Because of what he can do for us on special teams.”

During Fipp’s seven years in Philly, the Eagles also have won a lot of games because of their special teams. They had five blocked kicks in 2014 and four during their 2017 Super Bowl run. It was Jake Elliott’s game-winning 61-yard field goal with no time left against the Giants that kick-started that Super Bowl run.

The Eagles acquired the 25-year-old Ford last summer in a trade with the Arizona Cardinals strictly because of his special teams prowess. He’s the fifth safety on a team that historically has only carried four. But they see in him the kind of special teams value that they saw in other former Eagles special teams aces, like Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman.

Ford finished sixth on the team in special teams tackles last year, but the Eagles are looking for more, much more, from him this year.

“Rudy shows up on special teams,” Roseman said. “I think, for him, it’s important that we get a little bit more production out of that talent. I think coach Fipp has a lot of confidence in that, and we have a lot of confidence in coach Fipp to get that.”

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Roseman said the GPS monitoring device that the players wear to track their speed during practices and games clocked Ford at 23 miles an hour during a recent practice. “That’s insane,” he said. That’s sprinter’s speed. DeSean Jackson has been clocked at 23 mph earlier this summer.

“I was watching our Green Bay game from last year on NFL Network not long ago,” Roseman said. “You watch Rudy and Craig [James] covering punts. They got down there so fast it was hard for the punt returner to get going.”

The Eagles have one of the league’s better punter-placekicker tandems in Cameron Johnston and Jake Elliott. Johnston finished second in the league in net average in 2018 and seventh last year. Elliott missed just four field goal attempts last year.

But the Eagles slipped in several important special teams categories last year. With Darren Sproles playing in just six games, the Eagles finished 25th in punt return average (5.9). That was their lowest average since Fipp was hired.

The Eagles returned eight punts and kickoffs for touchdowns in 2014 through 2016. Over the last three years, they have had none.

They finished 30th in average drive start on kickoffs (26.3) and 21st in kickoff coverage. After blocking four kicks in 2017, they’ve blocked just one the last two seasons.

Sproles, who retired after last season and now serves as a personnel consultant for the Eagles, was one of the top punt returners in NFL history. His potential replacement is Reagor, a shifty runner with sub-4.4 speed who averaged 17.8 yards per punt return in college at TCU.

“I’m really excited about him,” Fipp said recently. “He’s explosive with the ball in his hands.”

Reagor injured his shoulder in a scrimmage a week-and-a-half ago. But he was a limited participant in practice Wednesday. If he doesn’t have any setbacks, there’s a good chance he’ll play against Washington on Sunday. Whether they let him return punts remains to be seen.

“We’ve got plans in place whether he’s out there or not,” said Fipp, who will use wide receiver Greg Ward on punt returns if Reagor can’t go.

Asked earlier this week how much better he feels his special teams need to be this season, Fipp said, “We always want to be better than we have been. I would say that every year, and we’re looking forward to this season and trying to become the best football team we can be.”

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