Damaris Johnson could be odd man out in return game

Damaris Johnson did not start as either the kick returner or punt returner when the Eagles faced Oakland.
Damaris Johnson did not start as either the kick returner or punt returner when the Eagles faced Oakland. (YONG KIM / Staff)
Posted: November 08, 2013

The Eagles changed their kick returner and punt returner in their last game, and those changes could continue Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.

Damaris Johnson, who has handled both return duties this season, did not start at either spot against the Oakland Raiders after spending much of last week nursing an ankle injury. With DeSean Jackson returning punts and Brandon Boykin handling kickoffs, the Eagles had their longest returns of the season.

"We're not ready to make a wholesale change at anything," coach Chip Kelly said. "I think one of the things we learned is that we do have some depth at that situation."

Kelly is cryptic regarding lineup decisions, but he did not rule out keeping Jackson and Boykin on returns this week. He said the team still needs to see how Johnson's ankle progresses. However, Johnson lined up as a returner in the fourth quarter when the Eagles held a big lead, and he was a full participant in Wednesday's practice.

"He came along last week a little bit faster than I think anybody anticipated at the beginning of the week," Kelly said. "We weren't sure if he was going to even be ready to go. We'll continue to monitor that. It's one of those situations where he could feel really good today, but then tomorrow when he wakes up it's a little bit sore."

The Packers allow 31 yards per kickoff return, which is the highest average in the NFL. They allow 9.8 yards per punt return, which is No. 11 in the NFL.

The Eagles still list Jackson as their No. 1 punt returner, although his first return this season came in the Raiders game. He has received occasional opportunities in previous weeks, and punters often have kicked it away from him.

Jackson remains a threat whenever he gets the ball in space. He returned four punts for touchdowns in his first three seasons and has a 10.5-yard average for his career.

Jackson had a 32-yard punt return against the Raiders. He combined for 7 yards on his two other punt returns. Johnson has averaged 8.6 yards on 11 punt returns this season; his longest was 21 yards.

"It's something I missed doing," Jackson said. "I definitely have a passion for it, returning punts in this league."

Andy Reid limited Jackson's returns last season, and Jackson publicly expressed a desire to return again. Kelly used him as a situational returner earlier this season.

With Jackson as a No. 1 receiver, there is risk in exposing him to punt returns and exhausting him on special teams. But he also brings a dynamic ability that could alter games, and he has told Kelly how eager he is to return.

"I told Chip I'm going to try to return one for him this year," Jackson said.

Johnson was an elite returner at Tulsa, and he was productive with the Eagles in 2012. He averaged 11.2 yards per return as a rookie and returned one for a 98-yard touchdown. Although Johnson seemed to make questionable decisions last season, Kelly has lauded him for being reliable.

"I don't think I did something where I think my job is in jeopardy, but I don't have that final decision," Johnson said. "I'm going to continue to do what I was doing, and if Coach decides that, then that's just what it is. But it's not going to change anything that I'm doing."

This also applies to kick returns, which is a role Johnson added in 2013. He has averaged 25.9 yards per return, which is ninth in the NFL. His longest return this season was 33 yards.

Boykin ran 41 yards on one of his two returns Sunday. He filled that role for the Eagles in 2012 after arriving with a sterling reputation as a returner at Georgia. Boykin averaged 23 yards per return last season, with a long of 44 yards.

Kelly said he is confident that Boykin can return kicks and Jackson punts, but this weekend could be an indication of whether he views them as the primary options or as depth in those spots.

Johnson conceded that he has not yet had a big return in 2013, but he said he has made good decisions and gained the most he could.

"We just haven't had that one big play yet, but I think we're getting close," Johnson said. "We're going to get that sooner or later."