Eagles “special teams” scouting counts in Draft, too…

It’s easy to forget as we scout the individual glamor positions in the upcoming NFL Draft, but special teams talent goes a long way in evaluating a guy’s ability to make a roster and contribute to winning in this league…

Take a guy like Colt Anderson, Eagles’ safety and special teamer who has for the past three months come to NovaCare Complex every day to rehab his surgically-repaired torn ACL…and he watches with some amusement while we mock away at the big-name college stars whom we project to be the next big thing at DT, DE, WR, LB, and even QB for the Eagles down the line…

Here’s Colt Anderson (5-10, 194, 3rd year out of Montana) signing photos for fans at a local restaurant….Colt also studies film and play-charts of special teams formations in his off-time while he attends daily rehab sessions for his torn left ACL in Philly with trainer Rich Burkholder… Anderson says he expects to be at “100 %” readiness in time for the start of Eagles training camp in late July…

Anderson is likely to start out the 2012 season on the Eagles PUP list. But there is no doubt in my mind he will be back in action by mid-season…and the main reason Anderson is still in the NFL is because of his outstanding devotion to excellence in special teams play on coverage.

Anderson suffered a season-ending ACL injury during the December 1, 2011 loss in Seattle. From a statistical standpoint, Anderson led the team in special teams production points and special teams tackles at the time of his injury. Despite missing the last four games of the season, Anderson finished second on the team in both categories.

Where Anderson was missed at the end of the season was on the coverage units. The Eagles were still able to finish third in the league in punt return coverage, but fell to 14th in kickoff return coverage due in large part to Anderson’s absence. The Eagles were at one point first in the league in average starting field position after a kickoff, but dipped to third in the NFC with an average starting position of the 21.4-yard line.

The area that was troublesome enough that even head coach Andy Reid acknowledged it in his end-of-the-season press conference was the return game. The Eagles were 28th in the league in punt return average . The Eagles were 31st in kickoff return average with rookie Dion Lewis as the primary returner on kickoffs.

The well-kept secret in NFL drafting philosophy is the evaluation of a rookie’s potential in special teams performance. When you really think about it, only about 10 percent of the rookies drafted into the NFL each year are “guaranteed” paychecks and isolated job positions. The rest are required to successfully fill multiple roles and to compete for special teams assignments if they want to stick around and get paid.

Overall, based on the “production points” ratings system devised by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, the Eagles fell to 21st in overall special teams performance in 2011. That’s not good enough to win in this league, we know— but it sure creates an arena of opportunity for young players coming to the Eagles to make an immediate contribution in 2012 to both the team and their individual niche identities on the roster.

Look at Akeem Jordan as an example— he’s been with the Eagles for 6 years now, as a perhaps undistinguished and undersized linebacker drafted out of James Madison— but he’s made a living on special teams.

Somebody drafted Akeem Jordan because they knew he was good on special teams coverage units.

Knowing your role and sacrificing your ego is a key component of successful special teams play.  You have to buy into the Eagles team philosophy of special teams play, which is hereby summarized in a very simplistic translation of Colt Anderson’s ST playbook of which he graciously allowed us a glimpse:

“The job of the special teams unit is two fold. First, the special teams will always secure field position for both the offensive and defensive teams. With each exchange of a kicking situation, we will gain yardage. This will be obtained through discipline in the execution of our assignments. If a player does not have the desire to be on the special teams unit, it will do nothing but hurt the total team.”

“The second job of the special teams unit is to take advantage of the unexpected; we want to make things happen. We must never be predictable, we want teams we face to be guessing as to whether we are going to kick or fake; return or block. If they are guessing, we are in charge. If they are not thinking about what we can do in certain situations, we will score. We must be thinking all the time, on the field as well as on the sideline. We must know all our responsibilities before we take the field.”

“While the kicking game requires an all-out effort by each individual on every play, this effort must be coordinated into a team activity. A great special teams’ player lives, fights, thinks, pursues and goes all out for the team while playing his position.”

“A good sound special team is one that has every player carrying out his assignment on every play. If you play as an individual, you may be successful on one play, but the team will fail in the long run and at a crucial time later.”

“Your job as a special team’s player is to carry out the team assignment and to go all out on every play. You must strive for success as an individual but always within the framework of the team.”

Cool. It sounds like Navy Seals special op’s talk…. I guess it kinda is the same deal…

Diagram lifted from Colt Anderson’s playbook…no biggie, since no trade secrets violated here…we can see it clearly on TV…

Here are some more excerpts from the Eagles playbook philosophy of special teams:

Kick Coverage Team Mission:
The kick coverage team will be knowledgeable aggressive players setting the tone of the game by successfully executing our kicking schemes and creating confusion for our opponent’s return team. We will dictate the change of possession or how we will score. We will establish field position for the defense or the offense.

Kick Return Team Mission: The kick return team will gain yardage on each kicking exchange by successfully executing our return schemes. We will be disciplined players establishing field position for the offense.

Kick Pressure Team Mission: The kick pressure team will be aggressive disciplined players preventing a score or loss of yardage on a kicking exchange. We will swarm to the football for a block or create field position for the offense.

Many of the big breaks in a game occur on a kicking play. The kicking game breaks often mark the difference between winning and losing. In order to make these breaks occur, every member of the special teams’ unit and the coaching staff must believe in the importance of the kicking game. Where a team is prepared, the chance to capitalize upon a break often presents itself at a most opportune time.

A sound kicking game can be established more quickly than either of the other two phases of football (offense and defense). It is imperative that we quickly develop an outstanding reputation for our kicking game. Players in the kicking game are special. Those players must take great pride in their performance. We must set as our goal that we will always win the kicking game.

Too often, there is shortsightedness concerning the scope of the kicking game. Many think only of the person doing the kicking. Good, sound kickers are important, but they represent only a fraction of what comprises the kicking game.

Punt protection and coverage, fielding kicks, punt return, punt blocks, field position considerations, PAT and field goal protection, defending PATs and field goals, field goal coverage and returns, fake kicks and fake kick defense, kickoff coverage and returns, squib kickoffs, preparations for defending the onside kickoff, kicking tactics, strategy, fundamentals, sideline organization, kicking game rules; all of these help comprise what we call the kicking game. To have a great kicking game we must be proficient in all of these areas.

Kicking involves many precise skills. The so-called skilled positions on the special teams include punters, snappers, holders, place kickers and returners. They must work many extra hours at perfecting their skills. Distances at which kickers and holders locate themselves, along with timing in snaps and getting kicks away, must be worked at earnestly and tirelessly. These time and distance requirements are precise and they require constant attention and concentration. These skills must be improved in the off season.

Even though fundamentals and execution are important, nowhere is player motivation more important than in the kicking game. Players who perform on the kicking teams must feel a great pride in their contribution to team success. Recognition of their contribution to team success is essential and can be done in many ways, including:

1. The special teams’ unit will have a special team’s captain.

2. Each week, we will post the game goals achieved by each of our special teams.

3. Each week, we will post a “TOP GUN” chart to recognize individual accomplishments on kicking plays.

4. Kicking plays. We will stress the fact that special teams play will provide an opportunity for players not on the first team offensive or defensive units to get some game action. Playing in a game is important to the individual and is excellent for team morale.

5. Special Team’s Player award at the end of the football season.

It should be obvious that recognition will only come if our special teams will perform with great intensity and precise execution.

Eagles Special Team Goals:

General Overall Goals
1. Perfect substitution
2. Exact communication
3. Avoid any penalties
4. No turnovers
5. Score or set up a score
6. No big plays versus our special teams
7. Succeed on fakes and onside kicks
8. Recover a fumble

Kickoff Coverage Goals
1. Kick each deep ball inside the 5-yard line
2. Tackle opponent inside the 20-yard line
3. Average / start inside the 23 yard line
4. Average less than 18 yards / return
5. Out cover our opponent (average start line)

Kickoff Return Goals
1. Field and handle all kicks correctly
2. Average / start beyond the 30 yard line
3. Average 23 yards / return
4. Out return our opponent (average / return)

Punt Coverage Goals
1. Get all punts off cleanly
2. Net punt average 39 yards
3. Average 3 return yards or less per punt
4. Out net punt our opponent (average / punt)
5. Down the football inside the 10-yard line

Punt Pressure/Return Goals
1. Field and handle all punts correctly
2. Average 35 yards net or 10 yards per return
3. Out return our opponent (average / return)
4. Force a bad snap or shanked punt
5. Stop all fake punts 6. Block a punt

Field Goal / PAT Goals
1. Get all kicks off cleanly
2. Make 100% PAT
3. Make 100% FG within 35 yards

FG / PAT Block Goals
1. 100% effort by 11 players
2. Block a kick
3. Stop all fakes
4. Force a bad snap or kick

Overall, it’s just one more metric to keep in mind as we select our MACH 10 candidates for making the Eagles “final 53” roster in 2012… How does your favorite 3rd-round and later selection stack up in special teams aptitude… and more importantly, desire to survive in the NFL?

Thomas Jackson

About Thomas Jackson

Jax Sports Media has been reporting on NFL teams in the mid-Atlantic region since 2006. Thomas Jackson is its senior writer. Tom started covering the Philadelphia Eagles for the MVN Network in 2007. In 2009 he joined the Bloguin Network. He now also covers the Baltimore Ravens.