The Eagles could have a conundrum on their hands in choosing their kick and punt returners this season, primarily due to the risk of injury to starters. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson is one of the top punt returners in the league, as well as the Eagles’ best offensive threat. Cornerback Ellis Hobbs returned kicks last year, but he’s now in line to be a starter on defense. Macho Harris was the other kick returner in 2009, but didn’t match his college output in the return game. That leaves Andy Reid and his staff with some decisions to make during camp.
When it comes to punt returns, Jackson is simply too much of a threat to take out of the role. The 5’10” wide receiver can go to the house on any return, which makes it worth the risk of injury. Jackson led the NFL in punt return average (15.2 yards per return) and tied for the league lead with two punt return touchdowns and seven returns of 20 yards or more.
Philadelphia should also consider that although Jackson is the best receiver on the team, that’s also the Eagles’ deepest position. While an injury to Jackson would hurt, the Birds would still have a strong unit. That said, Jackson may not see as many snaps in the return game in pre-season games or in camp just to reduce the risk of injury.
On kickoffs, the tradeoff between risk and reward may not be worthwhile. Hobbs is only an average kick returner, finishing 30th with 24.1 yards per kick return among players with five or more returns. The Birds also aren’t particularly talented or deep at cornerback. While Hobbs hasn’t proven himself to be a top corner, the Eagles can ill afford to lose any of their top three – Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs and Joselio Hanson.
That could leave the Eagles hunting for someone to take over the role. Jeremy Maclin didn’t excel in the return game last year and the same could be said of Macho Harris. Nevertheless, expect both of them to get looks during training camp.
Wide receiver Chad Hall will also get a shot in camp, but the undrafted free agent is nowhere near a lock to make the roster. Hall’s return stats at Air Force weren’t overwhelmingly impressive (7.2 yards per punt return and 22.9 yards per kick return). The 24-year-old also finds himself no higher than sixth on the depth chart at wide receiver. If Philadelphia wants to use Hall as a return specialist, Reid and company have to figure out where to stash him on the roster. When push comes to shove, the Eagles may be forced to go with Hobbs as the main kick returner due to that lack of roster space.
However, even with just average production on kick returns, the return game should be a strength for the Eagles simply due to DeSean Jackson’s explosiveness on punts.
Check in tomorrow as we’ll take a look at the wide receiver position, where some battles will take place for the fourth and fifth spots on the depth chart.
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