Last season, the Eagles ranked 28th in the NFL with a punt return average of 7.1 yards. That ranking came only two seasons after DeSean Jackson helped the team to the best punt-return average in the entire league. Jackson himself only averaged 6.7 yards per return, the lowest mark of his four years in the league.
So as the Eagles look to bolster their return game (they also finished 31st in kickoff return average in 2011), special teams coordinator Bobby April indicated Tuesday that Jackson may see his punt return duties decrease this season.
"We definitely want to increase the offense's probability, with field position, to score and the return game can do that," said April. "I mean, it's a quick kill. It can do it to the opponent like that. We do have DeSean Jackson, who can do that. He's been slowly sort of weaned off as much responsibility, and I think that will continue. That will be coach (Reid's) call. But we think we've got some guys that have done it and can do it well."
In particular, there are at least three rookies who figure to have a chance to make a mark on the return game, beginning with fourth-round pick Brandon Boykin.
"Boykin primarily was a kick returner, that's where he really had the big numbers, the big career, at Georgia," said April. "He has done punt returns and when he's done them, he's been really explosive. We want to make sure for him and for us ... that he feels really comfortable, that he demonstrates that he's confident in catching and returning the punts. He should, but we want to ensure that. And if he does, he should be a heck of a punt returner. He can do both."
Then there are two undrafted rookies who have already impressed with their speed - former Tulsa wide receiver Damaris Johnson and former Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris, who both likely would have been drafted if not for off-field issues.
"We talk almost every day, myself or (general manager Howie Roseman) about our situation and how we can get better," said April. "We saw there were a lot of guys out there, and a lot of them like (Damaris Johnson) and Cliff Harris were not necessarily viewed to be taken real high, so we definitely had our eyes on them, even a chance that we would draft them. We didn't, but it ended up working out that we got them."
The problem from here on out is evaluating those three, in addition to the likes of Ronald Johnson and McKay Jacobson, without the benefit of many live reps.
"It's tough," said April. "It's really hard. You know, we chart everything they do. We chart every time we do a catching drill, (statistical analysis Coordinator) Mike Frazier's got about eight categories - judgment, body position, bobble, everything. So, we get a pretty good evaluation of the catch. We don't get an evaluation of what they're like under fire. All we can do is sort of go on what they've done in the past in that regard.
"Then, in preseason, it's tough to get an evaluation. If you'd like to see four guys, I mean the other team may only punt four times, two of them might be a touchback, one of them might be a fair catch. One guy may get a chance to return one time. It's a tough evaluation. It takes a lot of good judgment to decide who that guy's going to be because that's a big deal."
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