Damaris Johnson isn't exactly the most popular Eagles player.
Out of 21 qualified returners (minimum 8 returns), he ranks 10th in kick returns with a 25.7 average. On punt returns, he is tied for 15th out of 27 qualified returners with a 7.9 average. Those numbers certainly aren't the worst, but they could be better. Numbers aside, the larger frustration with Damaris lies in his decisions to field the ball deep in the endzone (kickoffs) or deep in his own territory (punt returns). Call it questionable decision making.
But put aside the special teams performance for now, because what I'm doing here isn't about advocating Damaris as a returner. It's about making a case for him to be a larger part of the offense. Yes, you read that correctly.
The Eagles' offense has been gaining yards with ease, but some of the players could be upgraded upon. One guy in particular that could be upgraded upon is Jason Avant. I hate to say it because Avant is a good guy and a team leader, but when you look at his actual production, it's just not very good.
Avant's strong suit has always been running good routes to get open and great hands. The trade off is that he's not the fastest guy, so he's not going to offer much in terms of yards after the catch. The problem is that Avant hasn't been doing the things he's good at, so his value declines. Take a look at the numbers:
Out of 26 qualified NFL receivers (minimum 50% slot snaps), Jason Avant ranks near the bottom. He's been targeted 37 times but has only come away with 17 receptions (2 drops). That equates to a 45.9 catch rate. Simply put, he has been an inefficient target. Even when he does get the ball, he isn't able to do anything after the catch. His YAC per reception is unsurprisingly among the lowest in the league at 2.6. He also has 2 fumbles.
The redeemable things about Avant are his intangibles: his leadership, toughness, and so on. Then there's the fact he plays on special teams and blocks well as a receiver, both are aspects that Chip Kelly values. I'm not advocating for his snaps to be taken away completely. Just decreased and shared more with Damaris Johnson.
Why? Because he can offer exactly what Avant doesn't. In 235 snaps last year, Damaris Johnson showed good YAC ability with 5.5 YAC/reception. If number held constant for this season, that would be good for the 16th best YAC/rec rate in the league. The reason why Damaris can get this YAC is because he's quick and shifty enough to forced missed tackles. Damaris forced a MT on ~26% of his catches in 2012. Among the best wide receives in the league at MT/reception last year were Percy Harvin (22 to 62) and Golden Tate (16 to 45). Each is around ~35%. Some other good WRs in the league aren’t even above 20%. Funny enough, Johnson was named the Eagles' "Secret Superstar" by PFF.
We at BGN have discussed Damaris before and know he has the talent. Some people want to call him Na Brown because he has amazing training camps and then doesn't appear in the regular season. I'd like to maintain that's because he hasn't had the chance to show anything. He's only been on the field for 28 snaps through 7 games. As someone who watched Damaris every day in Eagles training camp, I can say that the talent is there. I don't think it's a fluke. Here's a more eloquently documented account of his talents from a certain BGN alumnus.
Johnson is an elusive and dynamic playmaker, but one who lacks split-second acceleration and pure speed. He has trouble turning the corner and gets caught from behind. I know in the McLane article Howie Roseman said Damaris had long speed, but I disagree in the true sense of the description given that he very much plays to his 4.5+ time. As Lawlor pointed out, where Damaris excels most is with the ball in his hands. He's up there as the quickest blur of a player I've seen in that capacity, and is always a threat to turn a short gain into something more. A professional ankle-breaker and jock strap-snapper extraordinaire, Johnson has special vision coupled with moves on top of moves on top of double and triple moves, and I will yell from the mountaintop to find him consistent touches in the offense until it actually happens. I'm hopeful it happens with Chip Kelly at the helm. What's more, lost in the praise of his play in space is how talented a natural receiver Damaris is as well. He's sudden off the line, with great hands and body control to make difficult catches look easy.
In the big picture, this isn't a big deal. The Eagles have bigger issues on the team. But it's an area that's probably being overlooked right now. Avant simply isn't cutting it. Damaris could potentially give a boost to this offense.
What's to lose?