Backups, third-stringers, and hangers-on don't make NFL rosters. Not on the way in, anyway.

Players who reach this level have usually been stars their whole lives, the pride of the neighborhood, the best guys on whatever teams they happened to play for. They are all alpha dog competitors who climbed the pyramid through high school and college and got to the best league in the world because that is where they belong.

And then it gets a little different for some of them.

"I was a star player all the way until I got to the NFL," said Bryan Braman, a linebacker by trade but a full-time member of the special teams for the Eagles. "Once I got to the NFL, I knew the only way to make an active roster was through special teams. So, I just busted my ass and made sure I showed up on film. Try to be around the ball. Try to be the first one down on kickoffs and punts. Make as many tackles as possible. Never shy away from contact. Hit anybody and everybody in my way."

Hey, it's not glamorous, but it's a living.

Usually, the special-teams units of the NFL, which take the field any time someone is going to kick or punt the football, are noticed only when something very good or very bad happens. The rest of the time, they are like baseball umpires. If they aren't noticed, they are probably doing their job well.

So far this season, the Eagles special teams have been noticed for the right reasons, but never as much as last Sunday against San Francisco. The Eagles didn't win the game, but it wasn't the fault of the special teams, which accounted for two of the team's three touchdowns. They blocked a punt that was recovered in the end zone and also sprang Darren Sproles for an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown.

Earlier this season, there was a kickoff return for a touchdown and a blocked field goal. They very nearly blocked two more field goals against the 49ers and, on the punt that Sproles returned, that one was almost blocked as well.

This is almost a season's worth of highlights already, but the units have been consistent even when the plays aren't extraordinary. The Eagles are ranked among the top five in the league for kickoff and punt return average, and their coverage units are among the top 10 for limiting the net punt average and kickoff return average of opponents.

"Everybody wants to be a starter on offense or defense. That's a given. But you have to accept your role as a special-teams player and embrace it," said tight end James Casey, who has had 32 snaps with the offense this season and 111 on special teams. "It gets nasty out there and you don't get much credit for it. We've had four really good games, but if we weren't scoring touchdowns, no one would care that much or say much about us. But we know how important it is to the team."

On the blocked punt last Sunday, Braman and Trey Burton, who was a tight end in his previous life, combined to gang up on the 49ers' right guard and collapse the line. The punt block was credited to Burton, with Brad Smith recovering it for the touchdown.

"We got a good surge and walked him back into the punter. I thought if we both did the right thing, it would turn out that way," Burton said. "We did mess up a couple of times in the game and had a couple blown assignments. So we could have done more, but our mind-set is to be selfless and to help the team in whatever way possible."

Special-teams players develop a foxhole camaraderie. They aren't in the NFL for glory, perhaps, but at least they're in the NFL.

"I've been in the league four years and you hear people say, 'He's a special-teams guy,' or, 'He's a high-motor guy.' Those are the types you put on special teams, the guys who might not cut it on the first-team offense or defense, but gives it all he's got," said Brandon Bair, a defensive end who got the field goal block in the opener this season. "If you're asked to contribute on special teams, but not offense or defense, then that's your role.

Casey, Smith, Braman, Burton, Earl Wolff, Chris Polk, and Chris Maragos have been among the real special-teams warriors for the Eagles this season, getting either all or a vast majority of their time on the field with the special units.

"It's really about being a servant and helping to set up the offense or the defense," Maragos said. "The biggest thing is we don't want it to be just another play. Every guy out there wants to be a difference-maker, wants to be part of an explosive unit. We work very hard toward those goals."

The work has been apparent, and so has the payoff this season. There will be other games like last week's, games in which either the offense or the defense needs a lift. It didn't turn out perfectly against San Francisco, but those are the days in which the special teams can make the difference. Those guys don't live for headlines. They live for those games.

"We go out to play without the fear of failure," Braman said.

@bobfordsports