Eagles candidates to return punts, kicks after Jalen Reagor trade

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When the Eagles traded away Jalen Reagor on Wednesday, they didn’t just get rid of their fifth receiver … they also got rid of their return man.

Last season, Reagor was the Eagles’ top punt and kick returner and all summer he was listed atop their unofficial depth chart at both positions.

Now the Eagles have to figure out who will return punts and kicks for them in 2022.

Of course, that’s not to say they won’t see an upgrade. While Reagor was their primary returner in 2021, he wasn’t very good. He ranked 17th in the NFL in punt return average (7.3) among qualified players and ranked 27th in the NFL in kick return average (21.3) among players with at least 10 attempts.

Throughout the 16 practices in training camp, I tracked every player who lined up as a returner for the Eagles:

punt returners: Reagor, Greg Ward, Britain Covey, Quez Watkins, Lance Lenoir, Kenny Gainwell, Avonte Maddox, AJ Brown

Kick returners: Jason Huntley, John Hightower, Covey, Devon Allen, Zach Pascal, Lenoir, Watkins, Boston Scott

Of that group, Ward is on IR, Lenoir and Hightower are no longer with the team and Covey and Allen are on the practice squad.

“Remember, the roster is not just 53, right?” head coach Nick Sirianni said. “We have 70 guys at our disposal. We feel like we have good options.”

Let’s take a closer look at the internal candidates:

Britain Covey: While Covey is on the practice squad, it would be pretty easy to bring him up to the active roster and he’s the most experienced return man of the bunch. It’s notable that Sirianni’s initial answer to the question about punt returner was to point out that they view the practice squad players as an extension of the roster.

Sure, his experience is at the college level but Covey was an electric return man at Utah. In his college career, he averaged 11.9 yards per punt return with 4 touchdowns and averaged 25.4 yards per kick return with another score.

Really, the kick return play isn’t very common in today’s NFL. The more important job is as a punt returner. But Covey did both in training camp and was clearly the smoothest punt returner they had in camp. I didn’t see him bobble a ball once. In the preseason, he returned four punts (6.2) and four kickoffs (23.0). The only other players to return this preseason were Reagor and Huntley.

Quez Watkins: The Eagles’ slot receiver got reps as a punt and a kick returner during training camp and with 4.35 speed, it’s easy to understand why. Watkins was tied for second on the team with eight kick returns last season but averaged just 17.3 yards per return, which was even worse than Reagor. Watkins returned kicks and punts at Southern Mississippi from 2017-19, averaging 9.4 yards per punt return and 20.3 yards per kick return; he took one punt to the house.

But even after the addition of AJ Brown, Watkins is going to play a big role on offense in 2022, so the thought of him pulling double duty on returns might be too much.

Kenny Gainwell: I didn’t see the Eagles’ running back work with the kick returners in camp, but he did return punts. During his rookie season, Gainwell did n’t get a chance to return any punts but he did return eight kickoff for 137 yards (17.1). The Eagles really gave him plenty of reps as a punt returner this summer but Gainwell wasn’t as smooth as some of the other guys.

Boston Scott: Surprisingly, Scott didn’t get many reps as a returner at all this summer, getting just a bit of work in the kick game. In his career, Scott has fielded just six punts for 43 yards (7.2). He’s also returned 43 kickoffs for 928 yards (21.6). So he’s probably more of an option in the kick return game.

Devon Allen: You’d think that the Olympian would be a threat in the return game, but he made his mark on special teams as a gunner in the preseason. Allen never returned a punt in college and the last time he returned a kick in a game was with Oregon back in 2014. That year he returned eight with an average of 26.1. He did mix in as a kick returner this summer at times.

Avonte Maddox: While Maddox will sometimes get some reps as a punt returner in practice, he’s entering his fifth NFL season and hasn’t gotten any snaps there. He returned punts and kicks some in college, but he’s probably just an emergency option if the Eagles ever need one.

Zach Pascal: He was once a pretty good kick returner back at Old Dominion and has returned 26 kicks in his NFL career (23.0). But he returned just one in each of his last two seasons and didn’t get many reps back there this summer.

AJ Brown: Nah. Not worth it.

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