- Phil Sheridan, ESPN Staff Writer
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PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Eagles completed their final practice Thursday before a 35-day break leading up to training camp. Here are three things we can take away from the work just concluded.
There is a commitment to improving the special teams play. Last year, of course, was Chip Kelly’s first in the NFL. That meant enormous changes for the Eagles, from the way they train and practice to the styles of offense and defense they play.
It is understandable that Kelly would focus on special teams more after spending a season in the league. The Eagles added Bryan Braman, a linebacker who excelled on special teams in Houston, and cornerbacker Nolan Carroll, an excellent gunner on coverage teams. Safety Chris Maragos was a special teams regular for Seattle last year. Darren Sproles, who will see plenty of time on offense, is a first-rate return man.
Of course, the Eagles also brought in kicker Carey Spear to compete with Alex Henery. But it has already become clear that Henery is way ahead of Spear when it comes to field goals. Ideally, the Eagles would like to see Henery improve his kickoffs, getting closer to the league average for touchbacks.
“The top [kickers] in the league are in the 70s [percentage-wise],” special teams coordinator Dave Fipp said. “We’re looking at the 60s as a pretty good number, I think. Alex has been very accurate over his career on field goals, 48 yards or less. There were only two guys who were ahead of him in the National Football League.”
Ultimately, the Eagles are willing to trade some short kickoffs for that acumen on field goals. If Henery can improve a bit on kickoffs, that will help. But so will covering those kickoffs better. That’s where Braman, Carroll, Maragos and Jason Phillips come in. Phillips was added last year as a core special teamer, but tore his ACL in training camp.
Nick Foles has the strongest arm, by far, of the four quarterbacks here. You have to go back to Donovan McNabb’s rookie year, when Koy Detmer and Doug Pederson were in camp, to find as wide a margin between one quarterback and the rest.
In fairness, Mark Sanchez is still on a “pitch count” after surgery to repair his right shoulder last year. Matt Barkley, who was coming back from shoulder surgery last year, does not exactly have a cannon for an arm.
For 15 years of McNabb and Michael Vick, the Eagles always had a quarterback with a high-caliber arm. It may be that arm strength is not as important as other attributes in Kelly’s offense, but the coach says otherwise.
“We focus on everything,” Kelly said. “There's not one thing that we look for and say, ‘You know, he has a quick release but it's OK, he doesn't have a very strong arm.’ I think you want the whole package in terms of what you're looking for. I think it's a combination of how accurate a thrower he is; and I'm not going to say, ‘Hey, I want to take this guy, he can get it out of his hands really quick but he's inaccurate when he throws the football.’ So there's a lot more that goes into it than one thing.”
There looks to be enough speed on offense even with DeSean Jackson gone.
When they were teammates, Jeremy Maclin was the possession receiver while Jackson was the big-play guy. Coming off his second ACL tear, it isn’t reasonable to expect Maclin to become the game-breaking burner that Jackson was. But Maclin has decent speed and still hasn’t played in Kelly’s offense. So it remains to be seen how the coach utilizes Maclin’s skill set.
Sproles and rookies Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff all have very good speed. While Sproles is a running back and not a wide receiver -- something Kelly made a point of emphasizing several times -- he is a guy with a history of making big plays in the passing game. Matthews and Huff will likely contribute more as the season goes on, they become more comfortable and Kelly becomes more familiar with their potential.
Riley Cooper, the other starting wide receiver, got plenty of deep balls thrown to him last year. He benefited from defenses focusing on Jackson, but it looks as if there are enough weapons for Kelly to put strain on defensive coordinators even without Jackson.