More happy returns in Jackson's future?

DeSean Jackson pulls in a pass in front of Nate Allen at practice. In three seasons, Jackson has become the game's most electrifying punt returner. Since '08, he's led the NFL in return TDs.
DeSean Jackson pulls in a pass in front of Nate Allen at practice. In three seasons, Jackson has become the game's most electrifying punt returner. Since '08, he's led the NFL in return TDs. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 16, 2011

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - DeSean Jackson said he still wants to return punts.

The Eagles said they still want Jackson to return punts.

But will he, and if he does will it only be situational? And if Jackson doesn't get his contract extension by the start of the regular season, will the Eagles' No. 1 wide receiver take on the additional responsibility and risk possible injury?

"First and foremost, that's something I want to do, regardless of the contract situation," Jackson said Monday. "If anything, that would help me still in my contract situation just because it's like the X-factor."

Since reporting to camp a week ago after an 11-day holdout, Jackson has yet to field a single punt. Johnnie Lee Higgins, Sinorice Moss, and Chad Hall have handled most of the duties in practice. Higgins was on the field for three punt-return opportunities in the preseason opener Thursday against the Ravens, but two were touchbacks and one was downed.

Jackson said that he expects to play for the first time this preseason Thursday night at the Steelers. But Eagles special teams coordinator Bobby April said that Jackson won't likely field any punts in the three remaining preseason games.

"He just got here and we're letting him just get acclimated to the offense and seeing what we got with the other guys," April said. "And then we'll work him probably toward the end of training camp."

In three seasons, Jackson has become the game's most electrifying punt returner. Since 2008 he's led the league in punt return yards (1,112), touchdowns (four), and has the third best yards per return (11.2) among those with 50 or more. Danny Amendola (11.4) and Patrick Crayton (11.4) are Nos. 1 and 2, but neither is as important to their team's offense.

"Right now, I think they want me to focus on wide receiving, the connection between me and [quarterback] Michael Vick," Jackson said.

In each of Jackson's three seasons, the number of his return attempts has decreased, from 66 to 44 to 28 last year. He was used sparingly for most of the second half of 2010 after suffering a concussion in October. Before the Nov. 28 Chicago game he refused to field practice punts and was called out by coach Andy Reid following the road loss.

An Eagles coach recently said that was an isolated incident. Three games later, of course, Jackson became the first player in NFL history to return a punt for a touchdown to win the game as time expired when the Eagles stunned the New York Giants, 38-31.

April said that a decision on how often Jackson returns punts will be made by Reid. A lot could depend on the health of receiver Jeremy Maclin, who has yet to practice in camp because of illness, and Jackson's role in the offense.

Jackson's own willingness could play a factor. He would like a new contract before the season starts, but negotiations have yet to begin. Both Jackson and the coaches, though, have said they want him back there fielding punts.

"During the season, he's done enough, he's worked enough - he could get the call Game 1," April said. "I think it kind of depends how these other guys do."

Higgins has 115 career punt returns and an 8.5 return average. His best season was in 2008 with the Raiders when he ran back an NFL-best three returns for touchdowns and average 13.0 yards a try. Moss has only 11 career punt returns - at a 6.7-yard clip - all of which came in 2009.

Hall may have a leg up on the other two because he's ahead of Higgins and Moss on the receiving depth chart and he's been with the Eagles longer, but he has only three career punt returns.

The value of each, however, could depend on how often Jackson is asked to return punts.

"At the end of the day, I still love to do it," Jackson said. "So at any given time when they want me to do it, I'm still going to go out there and do it."


Jonathan Tamari discusses several key special-teams questions for the Eagles at www.philly.com/

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Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745, jmclane@phillynews.com or @Jeff_McLane on Twitter.

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