Eagles Camp Countdown: #9 – Special Teams
Heading into training camp, there will likely be battles for roster spots at three of the Eagles’ five primary special teams positions: kick returner, punt returner and punter. Alex Henery returns as the Eagles’ lone kicker after a strong rookie year.
The battle for the Eagles punt and kick return positions should be heated throughout training camp, as there are a variety of possibilities that will be impacted by the results of other position battles. If it weren't "just special teams," and a position that really can't be tested until preseason games since teams don't do live returns in practice due to the injury risk, this position group would be in the top five on our countdown.
The Eagles will likely give opportunities to at least seven different players in the return game, and perhaps as many as 15.
Kick Returners: Dion Lewis, Brandon Boykin, Mardy Gilyard, Damaris Johnson, Chris Polk, Ronald Johnson, Chad Hall, Cliff Harris, McKay Jacobson and Wade Bonner
Dion Lewis handled 31 of the 39 kick returns the Eagles had last year, averaging 21.6 yards per return, which ranked 41st among those with at least 10 returns. Lewis had questionable decision making at times, and likely needs to improve across the board to keep the job.
Brandon Boykin, Mardy Gilyard and Damaris Johnson are probably the three favorites for the position, but others will contend.
Boykin, the Eagles fourth round choice out of Georgia, returned kicks and punts in college and will be thrust into the mix. Boykin returned 110 kicks in college, averaging 24.2 yards per return and taking four back for touchdowns, including three in 2009. As a senior, Boykin led the SEC in kick return yards.
Gilyard, who the Eagles signed to a two-year deal in January, returned 16 kicks for an average of 22.3 yards with the Rams in 2010. Gilyard returned 78 kicks during his collegiate career with Cincinnati, averaging 29.2 yards and returning four for touchdowns. Gilyard was the Big East Special Teams Player of the Year in 2008 and 2009.
Johnson, who went undrafted out of Tulsa after off-field issues, is the NCAA’s all-time leader with 3,417 kick return yards. Johnson averaged 25.5 yards per attempt on 134 returns over three years, and took two back for touchdowns. Johnson is just 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, both numbers that are likely exaggerated, but is reminiscent of DeSean Jackson, with great speed and the ability to change direction quickly.
Chris Polk, a highly regarded undrafted free agent from Washington, returned 12 kicks for an average of 19.8 yards in 2009. Polk could boost his chances of making the Eagles roster at running back if he shows well as a returner.
Ronald Johnson, who spent most of last year on the Eagles practice squad, averaged 24.1 yards on 56 returns at USC. Johnson was signed on September 5th last year, so the Eagles didn’t get the chance to try him out as a returner in training camp.
Chad Hall has returned six kicks for an average of 18 yards during two years with the Eagles, but may be lost in the shuffle with so many strong resumes among the return men the Eagles will have in camp.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie returned two kicks last year, but was injured on one and is unlikely to end up being utilized as a return man now that he’s one of the Eagles top two corners, due to the departure of Asante Samuel.
McKay Jacobson, undrafted out of BYU, returned 16 kicks for 18.6 yards per return in his four-year college career. Wade Bonner, an undrafted free agent acquisition from Mississippi State, may get a few camp reps as he returned several kicks in college. Neither is unlikely to be a factor.
Cliff Harris returned nine kicks for 192 yards during three years at Oregon, but is more likely to be a factor in the battle at punt returner.
Punt Returners: DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Cliff Harris, Brandon Boykin, Mardy Gilyard, Damaris Johnson, Ronald Johnson and Elvis Akpla
DeSean Jackson was the Eagles primary punt returner last year, with an average of just 6.7 yards on 17 returns as he frequently appeared to avoid contact during his contract year. Now that he’s got a big extension, the Eagles probably don’t want to risk using him as a returner.
Jeremy Maclin has had a handful of punt returns in the last two years, but like Jackson is unlikely to be used due to his importance on offense. Hall returned 7 for an average of 10.9 yards, but will likely be overshadowed by the slew of returners.
Harris averaged 16.2 yards on 38 punt returns overall, but stood out in particular during his sophomore season in 2010, when he averaged 18.8 yards and took four to the house, earning consensus All-America honors as a returner.
At the NFL combine, however, Harris was timed at 4.59 seconds in the 40-yard dash, likely impacted by his year out of football after being kicked off the team at Oregon.
Harris will need to play faster than his time indicated to stick at the end of camp. He may not need to make the team solely for his return skills, either, as he was a standout corner with the Ducks and would have been drafted if not for his off-field problems (primarily a series of traffic citations).
Boykin, Gilyard and both Damaris and Ronald Johnson (no relation) will be in the mix as punt returners as well. Boykin averaged 12.9 yards on 14 returns as a senior at Georgia, including a touchdown, while Gilyard returned 16 for an average of 12.6 yards and one touchdown in his senior campaign with Cincinnati.
Damaris Johnson returned 47 punts for an average of 12.1 yards and two touchdowns during his time at Tulsa. Ronald Johnson averaged 14.2 yards on 22 punt returns during his fourth year at Southern Cal.
Elvis Akpla, undrafted out of Montana State, returned 24 punts for 103 yards in college. He may get an opportunity in training camp, but his 4.3 yard average in college doesn’t bode well for his chances of securing a roster spot based on his return abilities.
Kicker and Punters: Alex Henery, Chas Henry and Ryan Tydlacka
While Alex Henery has the kicker spot locked up, there could be a battle between Chas Henry and Ryan Tydlacka at punter.
Henry ranked 32nd in the NFL in net punting average last year, with 36.9 yards. The rookie’s raw average of 42.9 yards per punt wasn’t much better, ranking him 29th. Henry was tied for 25th in the league with 19 punts downed inside the 20-yardline.
None of those statistics are good enough to grant Henry much job security, and the Eagles brought in another rookie free agent this year in Tydlacka. The Kentucky graduate led the SEC last year with 20 punts of more than 50 yards, and averaged 43.6 yards per punt. His net average of 39.6 yards was second in the conference.
Long Snapper: Jon Dorenbos
Jon Dorenbos returns for his 11th season in the NFL and his seventh with the Eagles.
With so many in the mix at both return spots, it’s tough to narrow it all the way down, but give the edge to those who are likely to already have a roster spot secured at a position on offense or defense. Also give preference to those who can return both kicks and punts.
That means Boykin will probably be given the first shot at both positions, and others will have to show that they are able to give the Eagles measurably more explosiveness to steal either job.
Gilyard, Harris and Damaris Johnson all have outside shots to hold roster spots based on their play at their normal positions, and can return kicks and punts, so they are in the next group.
Gilyard could sneak onto the bottom of the Eagles depth chart at wide receiver, while Johnson could steal Hall’s spot as a utility weapon on offense. In addition to his work as a wide receiver and returner in college, Johnson averaged 8.7 yards and scored eight touchdowns on 122 rushing attempts.
Johnson is certainly more athletically gifted than Hall, but he’ll also need to show he can carry himself well as a professional, having pled guilty to felony embezzlement charges in 2011.
Harris will try to thrust himself into the mix at a deep cornerback position and might be the most talented punt returner the Eagles bring to Lehigh. The question will be whether he brings enough to the table as a cornerback or kick returner, or is able to surpass his peers by enough in the punt return game to earn a spot.
At punter, Henry has the edge, as he’s already had a year to work through the jitters of punting at the NFL level.
Ryan Messick covers the Eagles for 97.3 ESPN FM. Follow him on Twitter.