Special teams will be dealmakers for final roster decisions
PHILADELPHIA — When the Eagles take the field at MetLife Stadium to play the New York Jets Thursday night, pay particular attention to punts, kickoffs and field-goal attempts, because what happens on these plays will have much more to do with who survives the final roster cuts that will come two days later than how they actually perform at their positions.
Receivers like Marken Michel and Greg Ward, for example, have proved time and again that they can help a team with their route-running and passcatching abilities. But how fast they get down the field and tackle on kick and punt coverage will determine if either has a shot to catch on as a fifth or sixth receiver, because fifth and sixth receivers who can’t do those things at a high level are essentially worthless.
Coach Doug Pederson on Tuesday talked about the input special teams coordinator Dave Fipp often has on those final decisions, which many times are not as excruciating as perceived because of how certain players flash on special teams and others don’t.
“Obviously his voice, his opinion matters,” Pederson said of Fipp. “I stress a lot with this football team that it takes all three phases, offense, defense and special teams. He has a really good impact on the bottom, say the bottom third or so of the roster, and really even some of our starters that have to play. We ask a starter from time to time to play at least one unit of special teams.
“So he sees these guys work every day in drill work and the special-teams portion of practice. It makes a difference. It makes an impact on the guys we keep at the bottom.”
This is especially true for the Eagles at receiver and also linebacker, a spot in which only two play regularly with the defense because they’re in the nickel around 70 percent of the time but up to six could be carried on the roster.
The last safety they keep also better be able to make a difference on special teams, although in the Eagles’ case, given what happened last year, every member of the secondary must be ready to get thrown in with the defense too.
With all that in mind, here’s what we’ll be looking at with extra scrutiny on Thursday night:
Linebacker: Because Kamu GrugierHill (knee) won’t be ready to start the season and Nigel Bradham (foot) might not be, the decisions here will be all that more important. Does an undrafted rookie like T.J. Edwards, for example
have what it takes to beat out players like T.J. Edwards, Alex Singleton, Chris Worley and newly acquired Hayes Bullard for the final spot?
“I think just trying to attack every day and make sure that I’m still getting better is what I’m really focused on,” Edwards said. “I think I’ve done well [in camp]. I think I came in and have done what they asked me to do and tried to make myself better in any way possible.”
Wide receiver: As mentioned, how players acquit themselves on special teams will be crucial. So it might not be so much what they do with the offense that determines who makes the cut.
Still, Michel, Ward, Charles Johnson and Carlton Agudosi all seem deserving, but maybe none of them make it if the team goes with just five receivers.
This is because Mack Hollins is a proven special-teamer and because Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Nelson Agholor and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside are locks.
Safety: There are some interesting battles going on here, because probably only starters Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are locks.
Even Andrew Sendejo, an accomplished veteran and almost certainly the next best at this spot, might not make it because the Eagles would gain a fourthround compensatory pick in next year’s draft if he doesn’t make it. So if they feel they’d be just as good or almost as good with some kind of combination of Trae
Elston, Johnathan Cyprien, Rudy Ford, Deiondré Hall and Jason Thompson, Sendejo could be gone.
Center: That the Eagles have moved undrafted rookie guard Nate Herbig into the No. 2 spot ahead of struggling veteran Stefen Wisniewski is all the more remarkable considering Herbig never played the position before.
And yet … “I haven’t had a bad [shotgun] snap yet,” he said Monday, “so I’m going to keep rocking with that.”
Sure looks like Herbig is poised to beat out Wisniewski for that key backup guard/center role.
Tight end: This foot injury for Richard Rodgers could be more serious than the Eagles are letting on. They say he’s week to week, but it sure doesn’t look like he’s going to be ready for the opener.
If that’s the case, an extra spot could pop open for Josh Perkins, Alex Ellis or Will Tye.
Again, pay attention to special teams.
Right tackle: Jordan Mailata has been getting the bulk of the reps all preseason, but a back injury could force him out of this game, clearing the way for newly acquired Army veteran Brett Toth to get extended action and maybe finally show what he can do.
Toth was set to play the rest of the fourth quarter last Thursday, but the game was called before that happened. So he will see the first NFL preseason action of his career in this game.
Should be interesting.
Wide receiver Marken Michel is one of several players trying to make the Eagles’ final roster with his play on special teams.