Dave Fipp Says he has Plenty of Options to Return Kicks and Punts
In the past, when Darren Sproles would inevitably get hurt late in his career, the Eagles’ conundrum was determining who would take over as the punt returner.
Greg Ward finished up as the primary punt returner last year with Boston Scott handling kickoff duties.
The Eagles fortified themselves with returners this offseason, and now the question is, who will handle those chores?
It was the very same question asked of Dave Fipp when the Eagles’ special teams coach talked via a Zoom call on Friday morning.
“We got all kinds of options there right now,” said Fipp, set to enter his eighth season as the team’s ST coach. “I would just say (general manager) Howie (Roseman) and those guys, they’ve always done a great job, but this year they’ve given us a lot of options back there.
“Everyone wants to be a returner. We’re meeting with those rookies right now. They’ve all done it and they’ve all been really good at it, so it’s hard to say you can’t do it.”
The candidates are all three receivers drafted this past spring: Jalen Reagor, John Hightower, and Quez Watkins.
Holdovers include Scott, who returned six punts last year despite never having done it before in his career, and Ward, and maybe Miles Sanders and DeSean Jackson, too, but that would seem unlikely, Fipp thinks.
“Projecting Miles might have a little bigger role on offense at this point in time,” he said. “We’ll see how everything plays out, but I would say if that’s the case we’ll probably see him less on kickoff return. DeSean is probably a similar situation, but we’ll probably have some conversations, see how he feels, see how his body feels.
“At the end of the day for us it’s what can we do to help this football team win, but that being said we have to be smart on how we manage all these players and don’t ask them to do something that’s going to put them in harm’s way.”
Reagor could be the top candidate. He averaged 20.4 yards on 23 punt returns last year, but his role in the offense could open the door for Hightower or Watkins.
“Jalen is obviously a very explosive player,” said Fipp. “When the ball’s in his hands, he’s electric. He made a lot happen, had a huge average in college. When he’s out in space, he can make guys miss.
“We’ll kind of balance all that stuff for what his role is on offense. Obviously, that is an involvement situation there, so we have to monitor that and how much we ask of him and use him, but he’s definitely a possibility back there at kick return.
“To say he’s going to be the guy right now, I couldn’t do that for you. I know he’s a talented player and we want to try to get the ball in his hands as much as we can, as long as we can keep him fresh and healthy at the same time.”
Hightower returned 36 kicks and one punt in two years at Boise State and averaged 24.6 yards per kick return last year.
Watkins handled 178 punts and 18 kickoffs in three years at Southern Miss and had a career average of 21.5 yards per kickoff return.
Fipp was asked if he could envision a scenario where there are more two or three players involved in doing both returning punts and kicks, and he said ideally it would be best to settle on one player, so you aren’t asking young players to do too much.
That may happen, however, where a few players are used in those roles.
“Teams in the past have used one returner in the plus-50 areas of the field maybe because he’s a really good ball-handler and secure catcher and have played somebody different where they think they can get a return going, so those are always options,” said Fipp.
“Then there’s also the option of should we put two returners back there deep. Truth be told, punt teams are spreading the ball around the field so much more to try to keep the ball out of those returners’ hands a little bit more. I think that’s going to come into play a little bit more as we continue to go. But all those things are on the table.”
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