"Boy, the return game is tough to evaluate," special teams coordinator Bobby April said on Thursday.
According to April, two different rookies are currently the lead candidates for the punt and kick return spots. Rookie free agent Damaris Johnson currently leads all others for the punt return spot and rookie fourth-round pick Brandon Boykin is the frontrunner for the kick returner job.
Johnson "catches the ball really well, he's in position all the time, he's really quick, and he had a big career (at Tulsa)," April said. "When you see him out here and you see his quickness is real, I mean NFL quick, you see his ability to judge being in position to catch it is real, you've got a pretty good idea."
April described Boykin as someone who is "quick," good at catching the ball and as someone who can "really run."
Asked to compare Johnson and Boykin to other returners in the league, past or present, April went all the way back to his time with the New Orleans Saints in the 1990s and mentioned a pair of guys who "are not household names."
He compared Johnson to Eric Guliford, a wide receiver and punt returner for the Saints in 1997 and 1998, for his ability to get to every ball and make good decisions. Boykin was compared to defensive back and kick returner Tyrone Hughes, who went to the Pro Bowl as a kick returner in 1993.
Wide receivers Chad Hall and Mardy Gilyard, cornerback Cliff Harris, running back Dion Lewis and, of course, wide receiver DeSean Jackson all remain in the mix as possible returners. Additionally, injured wide receiver Riley Cooper and fullback Stanley Havili were mentioned as working as "off returners."
Both Hall and Lewis worked as returners last season for the Eagles. Gilyard returned kicks for the St. Louis Rams, but he struggled as a return man. Harris had four punt return touchdowns for Oregon in 2010.
April said that Jackson will remain a candidate to return punts in key situations, but said, "we would like to have someone comparable and then always have (Jackson) in full tilt on offense, if we can."
"We've got guys, but as I said before, we have to make a really wise decision at which one is actually the best, and it's got to be done really through the preseason," April added.
The challenge in evaluating the return game lies in the inability to see the players in game situations, at full speed, during Training Camp.
"So much of the thinking has to be on what you've seen them do in the past," April said. "And then you almost are exclusively limited to how well they catch it because that can be determined, but how they run with it, their decision making, their toughness running with it, their judgment, are all pretty hard to tell until it's full speed."
April said that he looks for the returners to catch the ball by using their hands to bring the ball into their body. He also said that he looks for the returners to square up their chest to the ball as they make the catch.
Although April feels the team could theoretically keep a guy just to return kickoffs or punts, he did not see that being the case with this group of guys.
"All the guys we're talking about play another position," April said. "They're very skilled at their other positions."
Both Johnson and Boykin hope that their abilities at receiver and cornerback, respectively, will help give them an edge in the return man battle. With evaluations based primarily on past performance and technique of catching the ball, Johnson, Boykin and all the other return candidates will do their best to show off their catching fundamentals and skill at their primary positions in order to stand out and make the coaches think twice before making their roster decisions.
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