May 12, 2012; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Damaris Johnson (13) during rookie mini camp at the Philadelphia Eagles NovaCare Complex. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE
Back in June, Eagles Special Teams Coach Bobby April was very honest about how the his unit preformed last season.
"We were terrible" said April.
"Terrible", in the NFL, usually means one thing and one thing only- that jobs are now on the line.
While it is known that April will be back as the unit's coach, who is on that unit is still very much up in the air. One simple reason for the Eagles struggles on special teams was a lack of talent. Other than Colt Anderson and Brandon Hughes- who really only excelled in covering kickoff returns and punts- the Eagles had no stand out stars on special teams. This is very different from years past, when the Eagles always had one of the best special teams units in the league.
But another reason for the Eagles struggles on special teams was that is became very clear that Dion Lewis is not the answer on kick returns. Lewis returned the ball 31 times last year for an average of just over 21 yards per return. Lewis showed no explosiveness, and his longest return (33 yards), was the lowest in the NFL. As a unit the Eagles gained only 815 yards on kick off returns, good for 28th in the NFL- and nearly half as much as the top team in the league.To be fair to Lewis, he got the job almost by default, as the Eagles didn't really have anyone else.
Regardless, the poor kick return game continually put the Eagles offense in bad field position, and really never scared the opposing team.
Enter Eagles undrafted free agent rookie Damaris Johnson.
Johnson may be the same height as Lewis- both stand 5'8- but that is pretty much where the similarities end when it comes to kick returns. Johnson graduated from Tulsa as the NCAA's all-time leader in yards (7,796) and kickoff return yards (3,417). He did this in just 3 seasons, and could be the answer to the Eagles kickoff woes.
Johnson, unlike Lewis, is a decisive kickoff returner with breakaway speed. Not only does he have great vision, but he is able to switch fields when he has to- something that makes DeSean Jackson such the dangerous punt returner he is. Johnson was also a productive running back in college, and has good hands.
Whether or not Johnson makes the team will come down how he performs in camp, but also to how serious the Eagles are about fixing the kick return game. Johnson really doesn't have a place on this roster other than returning kicks- although, he would excel in the role Andy Reid seems to reserve for Chad Hall in weeks 10-16 each year. Keeping Johnson on the team would show a real dedication to improving the return game.
Another obstacle to Johnson making the roster? Brandon Boykin, the rookie cornerback from Georgia, is also a strong kick returner and is pretty much a lock to the make the roster. The Eagles could decide to save a roster place by having Boykin handle the kick return duties.
If Johnson were to make the team, it would likely come at the expensive of a wide receiver such as rookie Marvin McNutt.
Could it happen?
Johnson would have to show some real flash during the preseason games, but given the power April has when it comes to saving some special teams players from the chopping block, it is possible.
Follow Eliot Shorr-Parks on Twitter at @EliotShorrParks