While much has been made about the impact that DeSean Jackson could have on the Eagles’ offense this season, the 32-year-old road-running wide receiver also has a chance to provide a much-needed shot in the arm to their special teams as a punt returner.
With Darren Sproles sidelined with a hamstring injury for a good portion of last season, the Eagles finished 23rd in the league in punt return average. Their 6.5-yard average was the lowest by the team in 32 years.
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Sproles, 37, is an unsigned free agent. He still hasn’t announced his retirement, and may eventually play for someone this season. But it probably won’t be the Eagles.
“I opened the door for him to come back here,’’ running backs coach Duce Staley, who talks regularly with Sproles, said earlier this week. “I would love for him to come back here. But that’s not my decision.’’
Jackson, of course, had the most famous punt return in Eagles history nine years ago against the Giants up in the Meadowlands. Trailing by 21 points in the fourth quarter, the Eagles scored four unanswered touchdowns to win the game, capped off by Jackson’s 65-yard walkoff TD with no time left in a game forever known in these parts as "The Miracle in the Meadowlands II.''
“I remember I was a sophomore in high school when he did that,’’ said Eagles linebacker and special teams standout Kamu Grugier-Hill. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, that dude is the baddest dude ever.’ It’s pretty cool to be on the same team as him now and be able to play with him.’’
In his second year with the Eagles in 2009, Jackson led the NFL in punt returns, averaging 15.2 yards per attempt. The following year, he averaged 11.6. He had four punt returns for touchdowns in his first three years in the league.
Eagles running back Donnel Pumphrey, who is one of several players who have been returning punts in spring OTAs and this week’s mandatory minicamp, said he still remembers Jackson’s Meadowlands punt return “like it was yesterday.’’
“He muffed the punt, picked it up, paused, then hit a seam and was gone,’’ Pumphrey said. “Watching him now in Year 10 or 11 or whatever it is, his speed still is amazing.
“It’s crazy. I personally haven’t seen him stretch with us one time. He just walks out there and can put it into high gear.’’
Head coach Doug Pederson said Tuesday that the Eagles will “pick our spots’’ with Jackson on punt returns.
“DeSean is an exceptional player,’’ he said.“He’s special and he’s very electric with the ball in his hands.
“There’s times we’ll use him when you need that one punt return that could flip a field or maybe puts you in field goal position or (puts you in position) to score a touchdown at the end of the game to win.’’
Sproles was one of the league’s top punt returners. He averaged 9.6 yards per return in his career and had seven touchdowns. Six different times he averaged 10-plus yards per return.
In his six seasons with the Eagles, he averaged an impressive 12.1 yards per attempt. Had two TD returns in both 2014 and 2015.
“By no means can you replace Darren,’’ Grugier-Hill said. “But DeSean can definitely bring a lot to the table.’’
Since his unceremonious release by the Eagles and Chip Kelly following the 2013 season, Jackson’s punt return opportunities have been few and far between. He had three punt returns in three seasons with Washington and five in two seasons with Tampa Bay. All five with the Bucs came last year. He averaged just 4.8 yards per attempt.
Jackson wasn’t available to reporters in the locker room Tuesday after the first of the Eagles’ three mandatory minicamp practices. But special teams coordinator Dave Fipp said Jackson “definitely wants to have some kind of role’’ returning punts.
“I’m definitely excited about that,’’ Fipp said. “I’ve always had a great relationship with him. He’s done a great job for us. My first year here (2013) was his last. And he was great that year. He was really our primary (punt return) guy.’’
Jackson averaged just 5.1 yards per return on 14 returns that season.
“He was playing a huge offensive role for us,’’ Fipp said. “We probably had him doing too much, to be honest with you. We probably need to balance that out with all of the parties involved. But I’m definitely encouraged that he’ll have some sort of role.’’
Jackson’s major role in the offense, as well as, frankly, his age, are going to limit how much the Eagles will use him on punt returns. So they’re going to need another capable returner.
Running back Boston Scott, who was used as a kickoff returner late last season after being signed off the New Orleans Saints’ practice squad who has never returned punts either in the NFL or in college, is a candidate, along with Pumphrey, undrafted wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins from Penn State, and wide receiver Marken Michel.
Running back Corey Clement, who is recovering from a torn ACL, returned six punts last season, but averaged just 2.8 yards per attempt. Other candidates are likely to surface during training camp and the preseason.
“A guy like Scott, he’s got to prove he can catch the ball in games, and we can’t find that out until we start playing games,’’ Fipp said. “You’re also looking for a guy who can make people miss. And we won’t know that about any of these guys until we play the games.’’