The coaches’ instructions to the Eagles’ punt and kick returners used to be pretty simple: Catch the ball. Anything beyond that was an unexpected bonus.
The times have changed, however, mainly because the returners have changed. And now the Eagles expect their special teams to be, well, special.
The Eagles return game got a shot in the arm (and legs) last NFL season because of two rookies—wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who returned punts, and safety Quintin Demps, who returned kickoffs. Neither was the best in the league, but both were the best the Eagles have had in many years.
And now the Eagles have added two more return aces, which is an abundance of riches in an area in which they were dirt poor just two seasons ago.
One of the newcomers is veteran cornerback Ellis Hobbs, who was second in the NFL in kickoff returns last year for New England when he amassed 1,281 yards on 45 returns (an average of 28.5 yards per attempt). He also returned one 98 yards for a touchdown, the third time in his career he’s gone the distance with a kickoff—his 108-yarder against the New York Jets in 2007 was an NFL record.
The other is rookie receiver Jeremy Maclin, the No. 1 draft pick who piled up 577 punt return yards and 2,049 kickoff return yards in two seasons at Missouri, including five touchdowns—three on punts and two on kickoffs.
“Well, only one guy can return the ball at a time, but it is nice to have people who have done it before, who’ve been successful,’’ said Ted Daisher, the Eagles’ special teams coach.
So, who will the Eagles’ returners be in 2009? That hasn’t been decided yet—that’s what training camp is for—but right now Jackson and Demps sit atop the depth chart.
“I’ve thought about it,’’ Eagles coach Andy Reid said, “and I think the way that we’re going to approach it [is] the guys that were here a year ago are going to get the first shot—DeSean Jackson as a punt returner, Quintin Demps as a kickoff returner, and then everybody will compete from there.
“I think at some point the role that a player has on the team may have some influence over that,’’ Reid added, “but we’ll wait and see.”
In other words, Reid might not want to gamble on putting a starting player on special teams, and right now Jackson and Demps are No. 1 on the depth chart at wide receiver and free safety, respectively.
“If the other guys aren’t starting and they have made the team and they are good enough, then I would let the other guys do it,’’ Reid said. “I wouldn’t have any problem with that.”
Hobbs is currently behind Sheldon Brown and Asante Samuel, but that could change if Brown is granted his wish and is traded. And even though Maclin is expected to make an impact this year as a receiver, he’ll have to fight his way up the depth chart—he’s currently behind starters Jackson and Kevin Curtis, as well as veteran reserves Jason Avant, Reggie Brown and Hank Baskett.
So, don’t be surprised if Hobbs and Maclin earn at least part of their paychecks on special teams this season.
“Ellis Hobbs is a terrific kick returner,’’ Reid said. “Jeremy Maclin is a young guy with a lot of potential, and we’ll work with him and see how he develops. … We’ll look at him, see how he does. He is pretty good at that though.”
As for Hobbs and Maclin, both said they’re more than willing to play on special teams, even though they don’t want to play just on special teams.
“I expect to do anything that can help us win,’’ Hobbs said. “I don’t care what I have to do, I win. That’s what I expect to do, whatever it is. It is what it is and I continue to move on.”
As for Maclin, he knows that it could take time for him to become a regular part of the receiver rotation or the kick-return unit.
“I just love doing it,’’ he said. “I think I put in the work and the film study to be successful at it. … My whole mindset is that I’m a playmaker and I make plays with the ball in my hand, whether it’s in the offensive game or whether it’s in the kick return-punt return game.
“That’s what I thrive on, so if I had the opportunity to do so here then I’d love to do it and I’d be as happy as can be.”