There’s been a number of substantial shits on special teams for the Eagles, starting with the move away from Dave Fipp to his one-time assistant, Michael Clay, as the coordinator for the units.
Fipp arrived in Philadelphia with Chip Kelly back in 2013 and was kept through the Doug Pederson era. For most of those eight years, the Eagles typically were in the top half of the league when it came to ST efficiency and often were in the top 10.
Like most of the team in the disastrous 4-11-1 2020 season, the Philadelphia special teams units went in a downward direction but the thought by many was that Fipp would be one of the assistants that would carry over.
Turns out Fipp relocated to Detroit under its first-year coach Dan Campbell and he will be replaced by Clay, who started his coaching career at the age of 23 in Philadelphia under Kelly as a defensive quality control coach in 2014.
Clay was a linebacker for Kelly at Oregon and was coming off a failed stint with Miami in 2013 as an undrafted free agent.
By 2015 Clay was Fipp’s assistant with the special teams units before moving with Kelly to the San Francisco 49ers as the assistant STs coach there.
“My first time here in Philadelphia was a blessing,” Clay noted. “I grew up being a defensive guy. I played special teams in college and everything, but being able to work under Dave Fipp during those runs really helped me grow as a coach and especially fall in love with the special teams world.”
While Kelly was one-and-done with the Niners, Clay showed enough promise to stick with the organization, learning under coaches like Derius Swinton, Richard Hightower, and Stan Kwan, and had been there before the Eagles called to bring him back at 29 to be the youngest coordinator in football.
“I think that whole foundation of how Dave really got to connect with players and get them to play as hard as possible, I was able to transcend that and keep that going for my five years in San Francisco under two different coordinators. Nothing changed,” said Clay.
Clay will inherit two veteran specialists in kicker Jake Elliott and long snapper Rick Lovato but for now, the penciled-in punter is Arryn Siposs, who has never performed in an NFL game.
Fipp had great, albeit injury-prone, punt-gunners in Rudy Ford and Craig James during his final season in Philadelphia but only James returns for Clay, and the team will need to improve in the return game where players like Boston Scott and Greg Ward were underwhelming.
“Regardless of the record, it's all about the energy you put in,” Clay said. “If these guys trust you, they're going to give the energy no matter what.”
PK - Jake Elliott
P - Arryn Siposs
LS - Rick Lovato
Punt Return Options - Greg Ward; Michael Walker; Jalen Reagor; DeVonta Smith
Kirk Return Options - Boston Scott; Michael Walker; Jason Huntley; Quez Watkins; Adrian Killins
WHAT’S CHANGED: The big change is at punter where Cam Johnston left in free agency for a three-year, $8 million deal with Houston.
The rebuilding Texans brought in a historic number of new players in the offseason and Johnston was the only one of them who got three years from the organization so, while the numbers don’t look big compared to more high-profile positions, they are big for a punter.
Like Johnston, Siposs is an Australian with a big leg who punted in college for a big-time program. For Johnston, it was Ohio State while Siposs punted in the SEC with Auburn.
Johnston first failed in his attempt to make the Eagles, losing out to veteran Donnie Jones before catching on the next season, and Siposs started his NFL sojourn losing out to Pro Bowl punter Jack Fox.
None of the specialists have competition heading into camp although Fipp used to explain that they are competing with every other specialist in the league who are a phone call away.
It is interesting, however, that Siposs isn’t going to be pushed on-site at least early in training camp considering Nick Sirianni's lip service toward competition.
The other potential changes to keep an eye on are free-agent signing Andrew Adams, who is really more of a coverage player than a safety and returner Michael Walker, who has a history with new Eagles personnel executive Dave Caldwell from Jacksonville and was a terrific return man at Boston College.
HIGHLIGHT REEL: Elliott is coming off his worst season so there is at least some hand-wringing going on with him in advance of 2021. Overall, however, the University of Memphis product has been great for Philadelphia since being plucked off the Cincinnati practice squad in 2017, connecting on over 82 percent of his field-goal attempts.
That number ducked down to a career-low 76.7 percent last season with the strange part of it being the hiccups with easy kicks.
"It kills me inside," Elliott said last season when discussing his struggles with his short game. “... "It's just me coming out of my follow-through too soon. I think that's tended to happen to me a couple of times on some of the shorter ones, I'm looking up too early or whatever it may be. I've just really got to hone in on making good contact and finishing my swing."
A great natural athlete who excels at anything needing a swing like golf, baseball, and softball the thought process is that the 26-year-old Elliott will be fine moving forward.
To make sure of that the Eagles brought in Tyler Brown to be Clay’s assistant.
Brown is a South Jersey native and the son of Randy Brown, the long-time kicking coach in Baltimore who has helped mentor perhaps the greatest kicker of all time and certainly the best of the generation in Justin Tucker.
The younger Brown has been with the University of Michigan as a special teams analyst since the 2016 season. Before then, he spent two years as a consultant for Temple’s football team.
According to his Michigan bio, like his father, Brown has been dubbed a kicking specialist:
“While he was in school, and in years prior, Brown established a track record of working with some of the top high school kickers in New Jersey. From the time he began privately training specialists in 2006 through his time at Rowan, he coached multiple specialists to All-Conference and All-State honors in New Jersey.”
The most intriguing camp battles should be at the return spots where the Eagles want more efficacy than what Boston Scott and Greg Ward provided last season.
Fans are always excited to see what players like Jalen Reagor and DeVonta Smith can do on punt returns but they are penciled in for such important roles on offense, it’s tough to count on them being full-time returners although putting them back in a high-leverage situation should never be dismissed.
ROCKY: THE LONGSHOT
Walker might be the least known Eagles player because he signed on June 11. That’s probably going to change come training camp when more start to recognize his history with Caldwell and his return ability,
As a senior at BC, Walker was a consensus second-team All-American as a returner, bringing back 40 kicks for 1,020 yards and 20 punts for 274 and a touchdown.
If Walker shows solid coverage ability in addition to his returning skills in camp he might not even be a longshot.
WHO STAYS ON THE 53?
From a specialist standpoint, there are no decisions to make for Clay. His only options are Elliott, Siposs, and Lovato.
Elliott and Siposs are competing against themselves. Lovato is 100 percent entrenched as one of the better long snappers in football.
John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on both PhillyVoice.com and YouTube. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen
Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.