It has been an eventful year for the Eagles special teams, an impressive year for new players stepping in and filling key roles.
First, management mandated the switch from longtime long snapper Jon Dorenbos to Chris Lovato. Second, steady kicker Caleb Sturgis tore a hip flexor in the season opener, to be replaced — spectacularly, so far — by Jake Elliott. Third, Pro Bowl returner Darren Sproles went down for the season in the Sept. 24 victory over the Giants, but Kenjon Barner was signed and ripped off a 76-yard punt return against Arizona.
On Thursday, special-teams captain Chris Maragos went on injured reserve with a right knee sprain suffered in last week’s win over Carolina. Maragos is the heart and soul of special-teams coach Dave Fipp’s units; against Arizona, the last full game Maragos played, the Eagles totaled 21 special-teams snaps, and so did Maragos. He was a leader on all four units.
Losing Maragos brings a new level of pressure to a group that ranks second in NFL punt-return average, 10th in net punting, 11th in kickoff returns, and 15th in kickoff coverage.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson praised Maragos as “not only a great football player, but just a great person, great man, great leader on the team, in the locker room, on and off the football field.”
Teammates said Maragos attended meetings in a knee brace Thursday, upbeat as ever, a few days after he and his wife, Serah, welcomed their first daughter to a family that includes two sons.
“It’s hard,” said Pederson, who acknowledged that filling Maragos’ roles will be “a little bit by committee,” with corner/safety Jaylen Watkins, safety Corey Graham, and rookie running back Corey Clement sharing the load.
Linebackers Najee Goode and Kamu Grugier-Hill and tight end Trey Burton also usually play all special-teams snaps. It was Goode who accidentally caused Maragos’ injury on punt coverage with about six minutes remaining in the Carolina game.
Maragos was the first Eagle down the field, though he started from behind the line of scrimmage, serving in his usual role of punter Donnie Jones’ protector. Maragos spun off a block and tried to tackle Panthers returner Christian McCaffrey from behind, as Goode arrived from the other side, diving at McCaffrey’s legs. Goode missed McCaffrey. He didn’t miss Maragos.
“My left shoulder kind of hit [Maragos] in his knee while he was running full speed the opposite way,” Goode said. “I could tell from his reaction right away … . I’ve had a season-ending injury [a torn pectoral tendon in 2014, with Jacksonville]. When he went down, there wasn’t one of those things where you can go down and you can kind of get up … . He went down, and he was screaming and yelling. I was going full speed, and all of that force, at 245 pounds, hitting his knee, is a pretty gruesome injury.”
Goode noted that Maragos, 30, has “been playing at his prime, at a high level for the past couple years, and that’s why our special-teams [play] has been the way it’s been.”
Goode recalled scoring a touchdown at New England in 2015 off a punt Maragos blocked. Goode said he will need to take on more of a leadership role now, adding: “We gotta continue to play with speed – Maragos was a speed player, athletic.”
The leadership part might be the hardest to replace.
“Guys like Darren Sproles and Chris Maragos are not only great players, but great leaders on this team,” Jones said.
Jones needs a new protector.
“He calls all the protections, and he’s a factor in coverage; he goes down and makes plays,” Jones said of Maragos, who joined the Eagles as a free agent in 2014, fresh off winning the Super Bowl with Seattle. “Malcolm [Jenkins] has worked at it, Corey Graham’s worked at it. Corey’s played PP I think the majority of his career … . You fill in and obviously, it’s next guy up.”
Burton said Maragos “knows what’s happening before it happens – he watches a lot of film. Is able to … kind of give us an understanding of what to expect before every play.”
Watkins, healthy after being sidelined since Game 2 with a hamstring problem, said he’ll need to step up on special teams and be ready to help out at safety.
“The biggest thing with Chris is the leadership ability and the energy that he brings,” Watkins said. “If you ever watch our first kickoff, he was usually the first guy to get a tackle, and it goes from there. He’s the first guy to run to the stands and get everybody pumped up. Somebody has to bring the energy that we’ll be losing on special teams, and somebody’ll have to step up as a leader when we’re not playing up to par.”