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Eagles will look to rejuvenate the return game in 2018, but who will lead the charge?

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The Philadelphia Eagles kick and punt return game has been quite the conundrum since the turn of the decade. Gone are the days of Brian Westbrook and Desean Jackson winning games in walk-off fashion with their remarkable return skills. Lackluster names such as Reno Mahe, Quintin Demps, Brandon Boykin and as of recently Kenjon Barner, have attempted to fill the return role. Outside of the two great aforementioned returners, the Eagles have struggled to find stability at the position as of late.

Year Kick Returns Punt Returns
# Returns TD Y/R # Returns TD Y/R
2008 60 1 23.5 52 1 8.6
2009 58 0 20.5 35 2 13.5
2010 62 0 20.5 38 1 10.6
2011* 39 0 20.9 30 0 7.1
2012 60 0 21.0 30 1 10.3
2013 37 0 21.4 26 0 6.6
2014 32 2 27.3 41 2 13.0
2015 27 0 20.9 39 2 11.4
2016 35 2 27.3 19 0 12.9
2017 18 0 19.7 29 0 8.9

(Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference)

*Note: Kickoffs were moved from the 30 to the 35 yard line in 2011.

Looking at the return game statistics, the Eagles have struggled to remain constant since 2008. Until his departure from the team in 2013, DeSean Jackson was the catalyst that made the return game flourish. After DeSean was cut by Voldemort, sorry Chip Kelly, the return game has had its ups and downs. 2014 saw the arrival of the return ace, Darren Sproles. Sproles helped the Eagles reach the highest average yards per return in both kick and punt returns over the ten year period outlined. Even with the arrival of Sproles, Philadelphia has ranked no higher in average yards per return than 16th in kickoff and 19th in punt return as compared to the rest of the NFL. Shockingly, 2017 ranked the highest in both return categories when Sproles only saw action for a little over two games. Sproles now 34 years old and lead returner in 2017 Kenjon Barner hitting the free agent market, the Eagles will have to find a more sustainable option at the return position.

2017 return men left on the roster:

Wendell Smallwood: 4 kickoff returns, 93 yards, 28 yard long return, 23.3 yards per return and 0 punt returns.

Corey Clement: 2 kickoff returns, 49 yards, 35 yard long return, 24.5 yards per return and 0 punt returns.

As one can see this, duo does not exactly strike fear into an opponent’s coverage team. With Smallwood all but a near lock to be cut, Clement will remain the only other returning returner from 2017 (Sproles had 1 punt return for 10 yards before his injury). Going into training camp, the return specialist battle should be one of the most heated. The Eagles do have several in-house options with return experience who should be part of the competition.

The Favorites:

Corey Clement

Career Statistics: College – Kickoff: 1 return l 0 TD l 4.0 Y/R          Punt: 2 returns l 0 TD l 14.0 Y/R

NFL – Kickoff: 2 returns l 0 TD l 24.5 Y/R            Punt: 0 returns

Measureables: 40-Yard Dash: 4.68 seconds 60-Yard Shuttle: N/A 20-Yard Shuttle: 4.53 seconds

Corey Clement comes in as the “veteran,” returner in this group. Being the only one to have return experience, Clement should have a leg up on the competition. With less than stellar straightaway speed, the running back relies on his agility to make people miss. The undrafted rookie is coming into his second season and is just about a guarantee to be fielding kicks. Until someone knocks him out of the job, Clement can continue to gain experience in the return game.

Shelton Gibson  

Career Statistics: College – Kickoff: 53 returns l 1 TD l 23.5 Y/R      Punt: 0 returns

NFL – Kickoff: 0 returns                                        Punt: 0 returns

Measurables: 40-Yard Dash: 4.50 seconds 60-Yard Shuttle: 10.71 seconds 20-Yard Shuttle: 4.20 seconds

Shelton Gibson is coming off a season where he basically red-shirted. The 2017 5th round pick is best known for his elite speed. Under-performing in his 40 time he blew the top off of the 60 yard shuttle. Gibson would go on to set a combine record at 10.71 seconds. With outstanding agility and great breakaway speed, the West Virginia product can make a noticeable difference in the kickoff return game. Not being the greatest route runner, Gibson will look to boast his stock with his return abilities. The only knock on Gibson is the lack of punt return experience. The young receiver should be spending the off-season getting lessons from the great Darren Sproles to up his punt return game.

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The Wildcards:

Avonte Maddox

Career Statistics: College – Kickoff: 19 returns l 1 TD l 23.0 Y/R        Punt: 9 returns l 0 TD l 5.4 Y/R

Measurables: 40-Yard Dash: 4.39 seconds 60-Yard Shuttle: 10.72 seconds 20-Yard Shuttle: 4.0 seconds

Avonte Maddox was the first 4th round pick by the Eagles in the 2018 NFL Draft. Maddox is a smaller, shifty corner who will look to fill the void of Patrick Robinson as the nickel corner. Still needing time to polish his game, Maddox can still make an immediate impact in the return game. A 4.39 40, paired with a 10.72 second shuttle can be the combination of elite speed and agility the return game needs. Having experience in both kickoff and punt return, the Pittsburgh product can make a name for himself on special teams.

Donnel Pumphrey

Career Statistics: College – Kickoff: 5 returns l 0 TD l 13.0 Y/R          Punt: 0 returns

NFL – Kickoff: 0 returns                                          Punt: 0 returns

Measurables: 40-Yard Dash: 4.48 seconds 60-Yard Shuttle: 12.03 seconds 20-Yard Shuttle: 4.46 seconds

The all time leading rusher in college football was slated to be the “Next Darren Sproles.” Missing all of 2017 with an injury, Pumphrey failed to impress in the preseason. With limited playing time, the tiny back is no lock to make the team in 2018.  With a crowded backfield in Ajayi, Clement, and Sproles, the 4th back position may be a tough one to win. If Pumphrey can improve his return abilities, it may give him just the edge he needs to make the team. Many (Howie Roseman and Joe Douglas) hope that 2017 4th round pick ends up becoming a contributor to the Super Bowl Champion Eagles and not a failed experiment.

The Dark Horses:

Bryce Treggs

Career Statistics: College – Kickoff: 8 returns l 0 TD l 20.3 Y/R          Punt: 21 returns l 0 TD l 1.9 Y/R

NFL – Kickoff: 0 returns                                          Punt: 5 returns l 0 TD l 4.8 Y/R

Measurables: 40-Yard Dash: 4.39 seconds 60-Yard Shuttle: N/A 20-Yard Shuttle: 4.19 seconds

Bryce Treggs has bounced around the NFL since coming into the league in 2016. From San Francisco to Philly to Cleveland and then back to Philly, Treggs has not proved to be much more than a fringe-NFL player. Wide Receiver is another crowded position in the organization. Treggs will be competing for a number six receiver role. Another player who will look to boost their stock, Treggs may look to up his return game. The receiver has shown great speed and excellent agility in his pro-day numbers. Maybe only a long shot, the young receiver should be looking at anyway he can to make the roster.

Chandon Sullivan

Career Statistics: College – Kickoff: 8 returns l 0 TD l 20.5 Y/R         Punt: 1 return l 0 TD l 28.0 Y/R

Measurables: 40-Yard Dash: 4.60 seconds 60-Yard Shuttle: N/A 20-Yard Shuttle: 4.36 seconds

You’re probably thinking “Who is Chandon Sullivan?” Sullivan is one of the several UDFAs who will be attending Eagles Rookie Minicamp this week. The corner out of Georgia State will have quite the uphill battle to make the final 53. With return experience and decent speed the UDFA may have a chance to make the roster on special teams. We have seen the impact an undrafted free agent can make in Corey Clement. With Joe Douglas and Howie Roseman you can never expect where impact players may come from.

If I were to give my pick today I would say Shelton Gibson and Corey Clement begin the season returning kicks. Once Maddox gains some experience he may kick Clement from his return role.

The Eagles have been stuck in the mud in the return game over the past few years. One way or another the Super Bowl Champions need a way to improve in this department. I hope Dave Fipp can find his new return ace that he hasn’t had since DeSean Jackson. With an almost complete roster, figuring out the final piece in the return game can help solidify a repeat.

Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

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