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Should DeSean Jackson still be returning punts in 2010 and beyond?

Some people think that DeSean Jackson is the best football player on the Eagles. I think I agree. At the very least, he was unquestionably the Eagles' offensive MVP last season.

His touchdowns last season:

85 yard punt return, 71 yard reception, 64 yard reception, 67 yard run, 57 yard reception, 54 yard reception, 48 yard reception, 35 yard reception, 72 yard punt return, 60 yard reception, 19 yard reception, 2 yard reception, 4 yard reception. Here are some visuals of those...

When you think about the players in the NFL that have the kind of playmaking ability in which they are a legitimate threat to score any time they touch the football, no matter where they are on the field, there are two players that are in a class of their own - Chris Johnson and DeSean Jackson.

An injury to Jackson (knocking on wood) would be devastating, which is why I've heard the question asked... Should DeSean Jackson still be returning punts in 2010 and beyond, thus putting him at a greater risk of being injured?

For me, it's an emphatic YES, for the following reasons...

1) Quite simply, he's the best punt returner in the NFL. There were a grand total of 10 punt return TD's in the entire NFL last season. Jackson had 2 of them and nearly broke 2 more. For players with a minimum of 20 punt returns, Jackson led the the league with 15.2 yards per return. Wes Welker was a distant 2nd, with an average of 12.5 yards per return. If you have a player that is the best in the league at something, I'm not inclined to have him stop doing it.

2) Punt returns are not kick returns. Kick returns are brutal. On kick returns, you have 10 players running full speed down the field, as the returner runs full speed head on at them. It looks a lot like the fight scenes in Braveheart, where the English and Scottish forces charge at one another from a across a field at full speed. No way do I want DeSean Jackson returning kicks.

Punt returns are completely different. For starters, it's sheer numbers. At the snap on a punt, typically only the gunners release downfield, with the personnel on the line either having blocking assignments, or ineligible to run downfield until the punt is away. This creates much more of a "broken field" for the returner. If the punter is able to put good hangtime on his kick and the gunners are in a position to make a play, Jackson can simply call for a fair catch. In situations where he did venture a return last season and little was there, he did a good job of getting out of bounds or just going down. The risk of bodily harm is far less on punt returns in comparison to kick returns.

Furthermore, because players along the line on the punt coverage team are also trying to keep the return team from getting a free run at the punter, they have blocking responsibilities. To ensure that the return team doesn't just run right over your line to get to the punter, teams are forced are trade speed for some bulk along the line. As a result, you have a mix of linebackers, tight ends, fullbacks, etc that are trying to track down a speedy guy like Jackson, which is a complete mismatch.

As an example, take a look at Jackson's punt return TD against Carolina last year, and note the players that have a shot at bringing him down. First he easily sidesteps the gunner, rookie CB Captain Munnerlyn (41). Then, fullback Brad Hoover (45) basically has no shot as Jackson races right by him - Ditto that for long snapper J.J. Jansen (44). A simple little cutback makes the punter John Baker (7) slip, and all that's left is an easy footrace with TE Dante Rosario (88) and LB James Anderson (50). These are not players that are equipped to catch a guy with the speed of Jackson - i.e., mismatch.

3) Who else would return punts? The next guy in line would be Jeremy Maclin. Maclin, while very fast, lacks the shiftiness and vision that makes Jackson such an outstanding returner. Love Maclin as a receiver, but he's not the explosive playmaker that Jackson is, and if Maclin is returning punts for you, you're still risking injury to a starter anyway. So what about Ellis Hobbs? Nope, Hobbs has zero career punt returns in his career.

4) If you're the Eagles opponent, wouldn't you be thrilled if Jackson isn't back there? It was actually kind of remarkable that Jackson averaged 15+ yards per carry, especially since opposing punt coverage teams went to great lengths to pin him against the sidelines, or just simply punt the ball out of bounds. Once you stop trying to kick bombs downfield, you're conceding field position. Jackson is a weapon by mere presence alone, even if teams are kicking away from him to avoid a big return.

5) Bobby April - DeSean Jackson and David Akers aside, our special teams units stunk last year. April was hired this offseason to fix that, and he is of course considered to be among the best special teams coaches in the NFL - Seems crazy to me to not give April a weapon like Jackson.

6) Aggressive wins. If you play to not get hurt, you lose. This is football - It's a physical game, and there will be injuries. If you keep DeSean Jackson as your punt returner, you can count on about 25 or so punt return opportunities. Jackson had 62 receptions last year. If you could guarantee 25 additional receptions to that total (87 catches), you'd be ecstatic, would you not? Those 25 or so punt returns, in my opinion, are 25 more opportunities to get your best player with the football in his hands in open space. You take that away, and you're not aggressively trying to win.