In the immortal words of Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, if you ain't first, you're last.

That's pretty much the attitude of Dave Fipp's Eagles special-teams units. After finishing as the NFL's top-ranked special teams in two of the previous three seasons and fifth the other year, they slipped to 13th in 2017.

For many of the league's less ambitious special teams, finishing 13th would be considered a fair accomplishment. For the Eagles, well, it was a badge of shame.

"Thirteenth might be good for other teams, but for us, that's unacceptable,'' said linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, who is one of the Eagles' top special-teams players.

"Not making excuses, but there were a lot of factors that contributed to that. But going into this year, we know the expectation and we know what we need to do. We don't plan on having a year like that ever again.

"We're determined to be No. 1 again.''

All of the injuries at the top half of the Eagles roster last season impacted the bottom half, which is where Fipp, the Eagles' special-teams coordinator since 2013, gets most of his talent.

He was forced to play a lot of young players who didn't have very much special-teams experience.

He lost the heart and soul of his units, safety Chris Maragos, to a season-ending knee injury in Week 6. Punt returner Darren Sproles, who has averaged 12.5 yards per return in four seasons with the Eagles, tore his ACL in Week 3.

"A lot of people think, 'Oh, let's just throw the younger guys out there to cover kicks,' '' said Maragos. "But there's so much more to it. There's so many sight lines, points of angles, leverage points, the way you push and pull on guys. There's so many things that you need time to get the feel of.

"A lot of those guys last year were put in situations that maybe they hadn't been practicing for or weren't naturally prepared to do. Coach Fipp did a really good job of coaching them all year long and they kept improving. It's only going to help us this year.''

The Eagles finished 27th in kick-return average and 11th in punt-return average last year. In 2016, they were second in both categories. They finished 17th in kickoff coverage and 14th in punt coverage. In '16, they were second and ninth.

They finished 17th in average drive start on kickoffs. They were first in '16. They finished 24th in opponents' drive start on kickoffs. They were first in that in '16 as well.

The news wasn't all bad. Kicker Jake Elliott, who was signed off of the Cincinnati Bengals' practice squad a week into the season after Caleb Sturgis injured his hip, ended up being a very valuable find.

Elliott converted 33 of 38 field goal attempts, including all seven of his postseason attempts, and was an impressive 20-for-22 from 40 yards or more. He booted that memorable franchise-record 61-yarder with no time left to beat the Giants in Week 3 and had a 53-yarder in the Eagles' 15-10 divisional playoff win over the Falcons.

Fipp's special teams came up large in the Eagles' three playoff wins. They improved dramatically in just about every significant category, including returns, coverage and drive start off their kicks as well as their opponents'.

Donnie Jones had seven punts in the postseason. None of them was returned. They held their three playoff opponents to 15.0 yards on kickoffs. Bryan Braman's huge stop on Rex Burkhead with less than a minute left in Super Bowl LII forced Tom Brady and the Patriots offense to start their final possession at their own 9-yard line.

"The thing I was most pleased with last year was, I felt like, at the beginning of the year, we were going to be a team that improved each week and we were going to have to play our best football down the stretch,'' Fipp said. "And I really think that happened with that group.

"We didn't always play at the level I would've liked us to play at. Sometimes we were off a little bit. But towards the end of the year, I thought we got better and better. And I thought we played our best game in the Super Bowl against a really talented special teams. And that was without Maragos and players like that.''

Fipp will get Maragos back at some point this summer. He opened camp on the team's physically unable to perform list.

But he lost two of his other top special-teams players — tight end Trey Burton and linebacker Najee Goode — who were free agents and signed elsewhere, and the ever-dependable Jones retired.

Jones' replacement still is to be determined. The Eagles have just one punter in camp, Cameron Johnston. He has a big leg, but has been inconsistent.

Fipp made it clear that just because Johnston happens to be the only punter on the roster doesn't mean he is guaranteed to be the team's season-opening punter.

"We'll look at every player that's out there,'' Fipp said. "Obviously we'll watch [Johnston] and we'll go with the best guy. Sometimes that's the guy on your roster. Sometimes it's not."

Losing Burton and Goode hurt. But the Eagles added other players with solid special-teams resumes, including linebackers Corey Nelson and LaRoy Reynolds. And the experience gained on special teams by other young players last season should pay off this year.

"We've got dawgs in there,'' Grugier-Hill said. "Just in the linebacker room alone we got Nate Gerry, LaRoy, Corey and me. That's four guys already that's taking up the special-teams end. We're determined to be No. 1 again."

The Eagles improved their depth at a number of positions, which should have a ripple effect on special teams.

"We've got some really competitive positions that I think benefit us on the back end of the roster,'' Fipp said. "More so than we've had in a handful of years here.

"I think our corner position is really competitive. I think the linebacker position is competitive. The running back position is competitive. That's going to help us.''

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