By now it's apparent that special teams matter very much to Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. It was seen in the final roster cut decisions before last season and when the Eagles signed players such as Bryan Braman and Chris Maragos in free agency this year. There seems to be an area on special teams that hasn't been heavily emphasized to this point, though, and that kick/punt returner positions.
Returns have been made more difficult ever since the NFL moved kickoffs up in order to increase the frequency of touchbacks, but there are still ample opportunities in the return game to be had. In 2013, the Eagles return units were poor. On punt returns, the Eagles averaged a gain of 6.6, which ranked 27th in the NFL. That was good for nearly 3 yards below the NFL average return of 9.4 yards. As for kick returns, the Eagles averaged 21.4 yards, which ranked 26th and finished 2 yards below the NFL average of 23.4.
A number of those returns were being handled by Damaris Johnson, who proved to be largely ineffective. DeSean Jackson took over for Johnson later in the season. The Eagles also experimented with Brandon Boykin and the in-season addition of Brad Smith at KR.
When trying to figure out the Eagles 2014 depth chart a few weeks back, the returner positions gave me some trouble. I'm not sure who belongs where. Fortunately, the Eagles may have given a little hint during their OTA practice last week. Darren Sproles, Damaris Johnson, Riley Cooper, and Jeremy Maclin were back returning punts at one point. Sproles makes the most sense here because Johnson has to fight for a roster spot and both Cooper and Maclin are already burdened with a majority of offensive snaps.
Sproles makes sense on punt returns. He doesn't figure to play a majority of the offensive snaps so he can be fresh for special teams. Sproles returned 29 punts for 194 total yards and a long of 28 in 2013. His 6.7 average was slight better than the Eagles 6.6 team average. What's concerning here is Sproles' age and gradual decline. In 2012 Sproles averaged 8 yards per return, and in 2011 the figure was at 10.1.
As far as kick returns go, Sproles only returned 12 in 2013 and averaged just 21.3 yards. The Eagles could opt to use him there but it seems like Brad Smith could be the best option. It's a very small sample size, but Smith returned 4 kicks for 106 yards with a long of 47 and a 26.5 average in 2013. Using Brandon Boykin on kickoff returns again is an option that I think the Eagles would like to avoid given his importance as a slot cornerback and a gunner on the punt coverage team.
In any case, it's clear the Eagles need to get better in these areas. Combining the Eagles explosive offense with a return unit that consistently sets it up with good field position can only make it that much better.