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Counting Down the Eagles’ Needs: No. 5, Specialists

Feb 18, 2014, 2:20 PM EDT

Free agency is right around the corner, and the draft will be here before you know it. With the Philadelphia Eagles’ offseason in full swing, we’re examining where the roster stands at each position, counting down based on team need. Check out the previous installments on the wide receivers, offensive line, quarterbacks, tight ends and  running backs.

source:  “We can all count. Those points would’ve helped,” Andy Reid famously quipped in January of 2011 after David Akers missed two field goals in the Philadelphia Eagles’ 21-16 first-round playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers. A few months later, the Birds chose Alex Henery in the fourth round of the draft. Akers never kicked for the team again.

History may be in the midst of repeating itself in Philly right before our very eyes. Chip Kelly didn’t throw Henery under the bus after he came up well short on a 48-yard field goal try in the Eagles’ 26-24 first-round playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints. The head coach didn’t have to say anything at all.

We can all count. Those points would’ve helped.

Behind safety, place kicker might be the most obvious and immediate area the Eagles are in need of an upgrade. Henery has not demonstrated reliable accuracy on his field goal attempts, nor does he possess the leg strength to kick for great distance.

Henery blamed science for his inability to kick a 48-yard field goal anywhere remotely near the goal post, telling reporters, “The ball is not going to travel as far on a cold day.” That’s true, but how does it explain the lack of oomph in his kicks in virtually every other situation?

The Week 15 loss to the Minnesota Vikings comes to mind. Kelly had Henery use a number of squibs and mortar shots on kickoffs to keep the ball away from electrifying kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson. The strategy backfired though, as the Vikings often wound up with good field position anyway as a result of the short boots.

The thing is, the game was played in a dome. Minnesota’s kicker simply boomed most of his deep for touchbacks. Why didn’t Henery do the same?

Apparently, it’s because he’s not capable. Henery was tied for 20th in the NFL in 2013 with a 41.1 touchback percentage on his kickoffs. Only four kickers allowed more returns total. If nothing else, Henery was ineffective in this phase of the game.

It wasn’t a banner year for field goals, either. The 26-year-old out of Nebraska has seen his accuracy numbers fall each of the past two seasons. In ’13, Henery’s 82.1 percent rate ranked 23rd.

In this case, it wasn’t just the long ones killing him, although that’s a problem, too. Since entering the league, Henery has only even been asked to attempt five field goals over 50 yards. 17 place kickers tried at least that many last season.

Henery declined from the 40-49 yard range as well, hitting on seven of 10, or 70 percent. That was good for 30th among all kickers from that range.

Maybe Henery’s accuracy can improve—it doesn’t take much to make the numbers fluctuate wildly from year to year—but his leg strength likely will not increase by much, and that is the larger concern here. It’s such an advantage for the defense to have a kicker who can force touchbacks, such a weapon for the offense to have somebody who can attempt 50-yard field goals with a reasonable degree of certainty he might make them.

That’s what the position calls for in today’s game, and the Eagles aren’t going to get that from Henery. That’s why despite having one year left on his contract, Alex Henery has almost certainly kicked his last football in a meaningful game for the Birds.

Competition

source:  Replacing Henery is easier said than done though. Most of the unrestricted free-agent kickers out there are 35 or older. Several do not have significantly better leg strength. A handful may re-sign with their current teams.

The No. 1 unrestricted free agent on the market may be Graham Gano, the Carolina Panthers kicker who was cut by Washington early in his career. Gano had one hell of a 2013, connecting on 24 of 27 field goal tries—including 6-for-6 from 50-plus—while posting the highest touchback percentage on kickoffs (78.8) since 1992 according to Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer.

Why would Carolina let him go? While they will certainly try to keep Gano, who will only turn 27, the Panthers have salary-cap issues. The $3 million or more per year he could command may prove too rich. Then again, if it comes down to a bidding war for Gano’s services, it might turn out to be too rich for the Birds as well.

Although he would be more of a short-term solution, Billy Cundiff could be a decent option. The Cleveland Browns kicker had something of a down year on field goals, putting 21 of 26 through the uprights for a dismal 81 percent.

Field-goal percentage can fluctuate though, granted Cundiff historically hasn’t been especially accurate and at one point was out of the league for awhile. He certainly still has the boot the Eagles would probably prefer, finishing fifth with a 64.6 percent touchback rate in ’13.

Cundiff will be 34 this year, so expecting significant improvement in his career 76.2 field-goal percentage would be unwise. Chip Kelly often chooses going for it over taking the three points anyway though, so perhaps the emphasis belongs on leg strength anyway.

When Cundiff is one of the realistic options however, you can see why Gano could be such a commodity when free agency opens.

If the Eagles went the Cundiff route or a replacement-level player like him, they would likely put him in a competition against Henery rather than just hand over the job.

Franchise Player?

source:  With the start of free agency less just three weeks away, the Eagles are coming dangerously close to having a hole at punter as well. Donnie Jones won the hearts of the fanbase with his impressive performance last season, but as of now he’s scheduled to hit the market with everybody else on March 11.

Coming to Philly as an offseason addition from the Houston Texans last offseason, Jones turned out to be the best punter the Birds have had in ages. He set the franchise record with 33 punts downed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line—just two behind the NFL leader—while kicking just five touchbacks.

Jones was also recognized as the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week in back-to-back performances in 2013.

Four of his six punts against Washington in Week 11 were pinned inside the 20, including the 70-yarder down to the 4 with 3:26 remaining. After a long drive, Robert Griffin III eventually threw an interception to secure a 24-16 victory.

Two weeks later following a bye, Jones one-upped his own big game, this time dropping seven of eight punts inside the Arizona Cardinals’ 20, including a 69-yarder that reversed field position in the second half. The Birds hung on to win the game 24-21.

Jones’ punting was instrumental in both victories.

Simply put, there aren’t many better punters out there, and the Eagles would be crazy to let Jones get away. If that means using the franchise tag to keep him in place, so be it.

Using the franchise tag isn’t as crazy as it might sound. For one thing, Philly doesn’t really have any other free agents worthy of earning a one-year salary at the average of the five high-paid players at their position.

Using the franchise tag on a punter is also not without precedent. The Indianapolis Colts did the same thing to Pat McAfee just this past offseason.

We haven’t heard anything on the status of negotiations as far as a contract-extension goes. Maybe the Eagles are close to reaching a pact with Jones. If discussions go south though, there is nothing wrong with tagging Jones to keep him around for another year—and hopefully eventually for the long-term.

  1. death from above - Feb 18, 2014 at 5:47 PM

    Kulp, Kulp, Kulp…

    Specialists? How about a decent returner. I believe that the last time a serious effort was made for a returner was Allen Rossum. We used to take this position seriously ala Brian Mitchell.

    On a diffferent note, I kind of feel bad for Hennery. All he did in the minnesota game was what he was told to do,and was blamed for the strategy. Near as I can tell, coaches make the gameplan and players execute it.

    Reply
    • Andrew Kulp - Feb 18, 2014 at 6:05 PM

      Brad Smith is a quality returner. So is Brandon Boykin, although the team might worry about him getting injured in that role. DeSean Jackson can be a dangerous weapon back there. The Eagles could sign or draft a wide receiver or cornerback with return ability. Not exactly a shortage of options there.

      One of the problems with a team going out of its way to sign a return specialist is so many more kickoffs result in a touchback than used to that they’re not necessarily worth the money/roster spot. More and more, you want that person to have the ability to contribute elsewhere.

      It’s also hard to say whether the lack of big returns is related to the talent or if it has more to do with the quality of the kick coverage units. For instance, I haven’t been overly impressed by Jackson in the return game for awhile, but we know he can be explosive back there, so is it blocking? Decline? Coincidence. I don’t study special teams enough to say. Do you?

      As for Henery, I don’t think I implied it was his strategy, but they did that out of concern he couldn’t kick the ball out of the end zone. The coaching staff obviously knows what their kicker’s range is.

      Reply
      • death from above - Feb 18, 2014 at 6:34 PM

        AK thanks for the thoughtful reply.

        Smith is an interesting addition. Boykin and Jackson are,agreed, a scary proposition as returners due to the fact of injury.

        Maybe Brad Smith will become one of those sprecial players like Brian Mitchell was

        Donnie Jones is a gem. He won games with his foot last year.Reward the man!

  2. John Procopi - Feb 22, 2014 at 2:22 PM

    Smith was real good a few years back with Jets but he is washed up now I think. Jackson used to be dangerous but that was 3-4 years ago as well.Boykin I have not been impressed.A good punt return guy would be very useful.As far as Henery his leg is simply not strong enough.That was obvious pretty early last season and ended up costing us the season.I will never understand why Rosenman with birds 20 million under the cap did not find Eagles a better kicker last season.Even if you thought the guy was a decent field goal guy it was obvious his kickoffs were bad

    Reply
    • death from above - Feb 22, 2014 at 10:39 PM

      Well put…

      I guess my point is to get somebody with the guts and balls to be a quality returner. You are not a quality returner if you are looking to field a punt with your hands in the hand warmer while running,ala Desean Jackson.

      And no I’m not hatin, I’m statin

      Reply
  3. Tyler B - Feb 25, 2014 at 12:59 AM

    Not Cundiff. He was even brought in to compete with Akers a few years ago in SF and lost with not much positive from the Jets or the Browns.

    If anything, you are more likely to have an undrafted kicker come in to compete for the position rather than Cundiff. I still don’t think he’s shaken off that loss to the Patriots years ago, and while I’m sure he deserves another chance to show what he’s got, I don’t know how much gas he has left.

    Reply

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