Eagles looking to revitalize the return spots ahead of new season

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 Cotton Bowl Classic – Memphis v Penn State
ARLINGTON, TX – DECEMBER 28: Memphis Tigers running back Kenneth Gainwell (19) runs with the ball in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl between the Memphis Tigers and the Penn State Nittany Lions on December 28, 2019 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by John Bunch/Icon Sportswire)

It feels like forever since the Eagles have had a notable and reliable punt returner. DeSean Jackson’s return to Philadelphia didn’t pan out as expected and despite numerous attempts from numerous players, finding life after Darren Sproles proved to be harder than first thought. That may not be the case this year.

Over the past two years, the Eagles have placed a real emphasis on finding freakishly fast players at numerous positions. Those bodes very well for a special teams group that was once lauded as one of the best in the NFL and has dropped off somewhat over the past few seasons.

Greg Ward was the team’s primary punt returner last year, returning 21 with an average yardage of 6.4 Of players with over 20 returns to their name, Ward ranked 14th out of 16 in total yards. Ward isn’t the fastest receiver in the world but the good news is that help could be on the way.

Jalen Reagor returned 4 punts with an average yardage of 23.5 during his rookie year, but this is inflated thanks to his 73-yard touchdown return against the Packers.

Although his start to camp has been gradual due to dealing with the loss of a close friend, there is plenty of reason for optimism around the TCU product’s potential to return punts early on.

“Looking back at Jalen’s college film, he’s a dynamic athlete.” Special teams coordinator Michael Clay told reporters on Friday. “It’s just him getting more comfortable. Even out here, we’ve been able to shoot some jugs to him, let him just get comfortable in his short area. The big thing for him is just seeing the ball really. We’re trying to give him as much live from [P] Arryn [Siposs]. I thought so far, Jalen’s done a really good job.

Outside of Reagor, there are several other options the Eagles could explore. Of course, Heisman-winning wideout DeVonta Smith would make logical sense, but it depends on whether or not the coaching staff would want to expose him to special teams snaps from both a durability and fatigue perspective. However, he did field 11 returns at Alabama last year for an average of 21.5 yards.

When it came to kickoff returns, Boston Scott’s average of 21 yards actually ranked fifth in players with over 20 return attempts. He has 590 yards to his name overall. The Eagles might well be comfortable riding Scott, but with so many running backs on the roster, they may want to see what else they have at their disposal.

Kenny Gainwell is one name that should shoot to mind instantly. The Memphis product is scarily agile and brings a similar skillset to that of Scott, but with a much higher upside. He led the ACC in scrimmage yards in 2019 and ranked fourth in the nation in that metric. When asked about the idea of using him on returns, Michael Clay’s response was an exciting one.

“Memphis has a nice long lineage of really good returners, and Kenny has been very, very good so far.” He said. “We’re getting him ready to do everything – punt, kick return, play a little on the inside. We’re getting him ready for anything. Kenny has been very good so far when he’s out there catching it. Very soft hands out there.”

Whether the Eagles go down a familiar path or instead look to hand over the reins to new and emerging talent, the main thing here is that for the first time in a long time, there’s optionality at both return spots. With a focus on finding a flurry of talent who can contribute to those roles, it affords opportunities to guys lower down the roster who might not usually have a shot at showing coaches what they’re capable of. Names like Michael Walker and even the duo of John Hightower and Quez Watkins could be considered upon their return to the practice field.

“I think the more options, the better because you never know what’s going to happen in terms of a game.” Clay explained. “But if we feel good we have two or three guys that can catch, field, punt and in the plus-50 and secure it, I think that’s what we’re trying to strive for out here in practice. Get everyone as comfortable as possible catching both the open field punt and in the plus-50.”

Expect to see several different faced fielding kicks and punts through the preseason and potentially into the regular season as well.

Photo by John Bunch/Icon Sportswire