Will Eagles Turn To DeSean To Return Punts?

In the offseason, the Eagles made moves to address their return game, but so far, the results have been unimpressive.

Let’s start with punts. Damaris Johnson has been the man through five games, although his opportunities have been limited. Johnson’s called nine fair catches (tied for most in the league) and returned another eight. His longest return has gone for just 13 yards.

So is it time for DeSean Jackson to get a shot?

“He’s always ready to go. I mean, he’s like a pinch-hitter. He’s ready to go. We just have to call his number,” special-teams coach Bobby April said. “Most of our punt returns have not been traditionally field punts. They’ve been up closer to the 50-yard line where you have to worry about a lot of things and you have to spread yourself a little bit thin. It’s tough to make just an all-out concentration on the punt return in that phase of the game.”

Jackson scored four touchdowns on punt returns from 2008 to 2010, but in 2011, he was terrible. According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles had the 27th-ranked punt return unit in the NFL. Of course, Jackson has admitted that his contract situation contributed to struggles in all aspects of his game last year. With a new deal in hand, he’s been very good as a receiver in 2012.

“You never know,” April said. “You may get your wish this week. You may get it in two weeks, you never know. But he’s always ready to go.”

The sense I get is that Johnson will continue to return punts. And Jackson is an option in certain situations. For example, in a tie game with 16 seconds on the clock, you might see him back there. But otherwise, it’s going to be Johnson. Either way, April said it’s not usually his call.

“In the times that we’ve done it and we’ve put him in, usually it’s Coach [Andy] Reid that will tell me he wants him in,” April said.

Meanwhile, the Eagles haven’t been much better on kickoff returns with Brandon Boykin. They’re averaging 19.6 yards per return, which ranks 30th. And the Birds are one of three teams (the Patriots and Cowboys the others) without a kickoff return of at least 30 yards. April seemed to think the problem has more to do with the blocking than Boykin.

“I think the blocking and our timing and our setting the formation properly has been more a factor than his innate ability,” April said. “I do think we’re improving by increments. There needs to be greater increments of improvement. But I do think there is improvement. I do think the arrow is pointing in the right direction.”

If the return game is ever going to get on track, this would be the week. Football Outsiders has the Lions’ special-teams unit ranked dead-last in the league (the Eagles are 28th). Detroit has the worst kickoff coverage unit and the second-to-worst punt coverage unit. A couple weeks ago, the Lions became the first team since at least 1940 to allow a punt return for a touchdown and a kickoff return for a touchdown in consecutive weeks, according to Elias.

“My defense of those two guys [Boykin and Johnson], statistically, is not very strong,” April said. “But we have a lot of faith in them. I have a lot of faith in them. … I think these guys’ talent will shine.”

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.