Even though the rookies report to Lehigh TC a few days earlier than the veterans, the Eagles can still begin work on one of the more vulnerable aspects of their offensive game— the kick return and punt return.
“We were bad there,” special teams coordinator Bobby April understated during minicamp last month. “No question about it.”
Not since Brian Mitchell in 2002 have the Eagles had a legitimate threat to consistently break long kickoff returns. Quintin Demps did take one back all the way in 2008, but averaged just 23.8 yards on his other 51 attempts that season.
J.R. Reed in 2004 showed some potential as a rookie — until a freak offseason injury derailed his career.
For 10 years, the Eagles have searched — though not very hard — for the next Mitchell, who was 32 years old when he first arrived in Philadelphia in 2000. That might have changed this spring with the drafting of cornerback Brandon Boykin, the front-runner to take the primary return job from Dion Lewis, whose ability and decision-making came into question throughout their 8-8 season.
Brandon Boykin returning kicks at Georgia (5-9, 182, drafted 4th round)…Can you spell “Messiah” with a KR in front?
Boykin set University of Georgia career records for kickoff returns (110), yards (2,663) and touchdowns (four). This is in addition to being a good-enough cornerback to last longer than Demps, a safety who never fit into their system, and Reed, who never had that kind of ability even when 100 percent.
Add wide receiver Damaris Johnson into the mix as well. The undrafted rookie free agent out of Tulsa did it all in college and is ready to do the same at this level, despite his slight dimensions (5-foot-8, 175). “I just think they’re going to give me every opportunity in order to make this squad,” Johnson said. “To be a good returner, you have to be fearless. Instead of running side to side, you have to run up and down into traffic…it’s not a natural instinct to take away half the field from yourself.”
Boykin believes instincts fuel good returners more than experience. “For me, it was always there,” he said. “I didn’t really return until my sophomore year [at Georgia], and me being in that unknown position was kind of an advantage because I didn’t know what was going on. All I wanted to do was just run and make an impact. So I just kind of kept that same tenacity throughout my career.”
To be fair, it may be unrealistic to put so much pressure to turn around the entire kick return app upon a rookie. After all, a lot of good things have to go on up front in the unit to produce a good return—such as intelligent wedge formations, solid blocking without penalties, and a kick that is actually returnable. And I always remember, the other dogs on defense are trying to eat, too.
Even a 10 percent improvement in results would be welcomed. The primary objective of the KR unit is not to score a TD—but to give its offense an improved field position to start out from.
Last season, the Eagles’ average of 20.9 yards per return (with a long of 33) was higher only than that of the pitiful Indy Colts. Yet it was an improvement over their 20.5 average in each of the previous two seasons. The high mark of 33 yards last season was the lowest in the league.
The punt return unit needs to improve, too.
Maybe Boykin and Johnson fit into the punt-return teams as well, even though the Eagles already have one of the best in the game, DeSean Jackson, at their disposal. But because Jackson,an electric returner who has four career TDs and averaged 15.2 yards in 2009, just signed a long-term contract extension this year, there is a strong possibility he will be pulled off punts the same way Brian Westbrook was when he became their starting running back in 2004.
Jeremy Maclin has had some success returning punts, too. But again, do you realy want to risk Maclin’s getting dinged up on a 15-yard return when he could give you 100 yards receiving in the same game on any given day?
Competition is therefore wide open at KR and PR…and we’re talking rookies here.