With the Eagles set to return to practice on Monday as the bye week ends, it only makes sense to end our Midseason Report series with the returners and the special teams unit. Which aspects of Bobby April's crew are under the spotlight in the final 10 games of the regular season? ...
1. Who will return punts?
Rookie wide receiver and punt returner Damaris Johnson made the team in part because of his abilities as a game-changing return man in college. When he left Tulsa to go pro, Johnson did so as the NCAA's all-time leader in all-purpose yards. Through three years, he compiled 3,417 kick return yards.
Unfortunately for Johnson and the Eagles, that success has yet to translate to the NFL. After averaging only 6.0 yards per return though five games, Johnson was inactive for the game against the Lions. Wide receiver Mardy Gilyard had a go at returning punts, but didn't fare much better. He handled two punts for a combined 15 yards, 11 of which came on one run. So far this season, the team's longest punt return has been 13 yards.
There is no question that the best punt returner on the team is wide receiver DeSean Jackson. Since entering the league in 2008 Jackson has 1,223 punt return yards and four touchdowns. In 2009, Jackson was named a Pro Bowl starter at receiver and returner, marking the first time in Pro Bowl history a player was named a starter at two positions.
But for all his accolades, Jackson's true value is on offense. While the coaches feel he is best kept solely there, they are willing to use him in certain situations.
"He's always ready to go," special teams coordinator Bobby April said last week. "He's like a pinch hitter. He's ready to go. We just have to call his number … He's always on deck. He's always there, prepared there, to go. He doesn't catch as many punts as he did when he was the punt returner but he's still trained for it."
Jackson tried his hand at returning against the Lions, but lost yardage on the play. While Jackson remains the Eagles' best punt returner, don't expect to see him as the everyday guy. Instead, expect to see Gilyard and Johnson work in the punt return role moving forward.
2. Will the new additions fix the coverage issues?
While the hiring of Todd Bowles as defensive coordinator was the largest sign that, in head coach Andy Reid's words, "average isn't good enough," it wasn't the first sign. After a month of lackluster special teams play that featured poor coverage, missed tackles and subpar returning, the coaching staff decided to change it up. In early October, the Eagles released underachieving linebacker Brian Rolle, bringing in Adrian Moten to play on special teams. But when he missed a tackle that led to a big return against the Steelers, Moten found himself released as quickly as he was signed. The message here was clear – perform and you stay. Don't perform and you're gone.
After releasing Moten the Eagles were able to sign linebacker Jason Williams, a former third-round pick for the Cowboys and an accomplished special teamer. Last season with the Panthers, Williams led the team with 15 special teams tackles.
"He's definitely got the ability to make plays," April said. "He's got the ability to run. He's a big guy: 240 (pounds), (and) can run like that. (I'm) surprised he was still out there really. I think he can make plays. I think he definitely has the ability and he's got a track record of playing in the league and being a productive player on teams."
And while the Eagles' coverage units have not performed up to their abilities thus far, there is reason for optimism. After going down with a knee injury late last season, special teams ace Colt Anderson has returned to form. His play greatly improves the Eagles coverage units. Last season, Anderson finished second on the team with 168 special teams production points and 12 special teams tackles. He was also voted special teams MVP by his teammates. The Eagles also welcomed back receiver Riley Cooper, who suffered a collarbone injury and missed nearly all of Training Camp. The return of these two players, plus the notable addition of Williams, should help improve the coverage units on both kickoff and punt returns for the remaining 10 games.
3. Is Brandon Boykin close to breaking out?
Like Johnson, cornerback and kick returner Brandon Boykin was a highly touted return man in college. In three years as Georgia's punt returner, he compiled 2,663 yards and four touchdowns. Unfortunately, also like Johnson, Boykin has not started the year as well as may have been expected.
Boykin showed flashes of his ability in the preseason. On his first NFL touch in the preseason, Boykin took a kick out of the end zone and returned it 46 yards. So far this season Boykin ranks eighth in the league in total kick return yards with 397, good for an average of 22.1 yards per return.
Through the first five games of the season, Boykin is averaging around 55 kick return yards per game. But against the Lions he had his best game of the season, returning five kicks for 122 yards, including gains of 30 and 31 yards.
"I feel like I'm improving in the return game," Boykin said in his rookie blog. "You just have to keep pushing at it, that's how it was in college. It took me a little while to break one. Eventually I started getting great returns, so we'll just continue to get better. The talent across the league is equal. The little things like watching film and preparing, I think, is what separates us from other teams."
No Eagles return man has run a kickoff back for a score since Quintin Demps did it against the Ravens in 2008. But April has a great amount of confidence in his returners and thinks a big return for a touchdown is on the horizon.
"Those plays are like a thunderstorm," April said. "The ingredients kind of need to be in the right place and they'll break. You never know when they're going to be. Obviously the greater your team is honed in there together you have a greater chance of those ingredients being right. I certainly think they'll break one."
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