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Eagles Still Searching for Consistency on Kickoff Returns

It's no longer an important part of the game in the modern NFL but the Eagles would like to see a little more success on kickoff returns

PHILADELPHIA - Kickoff returns used to be one of the more exciting plays in professional football. 

The problem is they were also among the most dangerous, something that fueled the NFL toward massive changes in which, more often than not, the kickoff has become an afterthought.

Consider that, through their 3-6 season, the Eagles have only returned just 15 kickoffs, an average of 1.67 per game. Their opponents are at 18, only 2.0 per game so the play is no longer of paramount importance, but it is nice to have some efficacy with it during the few occasions it's needed.

Philadelphia hasn't had much success toggling between three second-year returners in Quez Watkins, Jalen Reagor, and John Hightower.

"It just comes with the communication," special teams coordinator Michael Clay said of the musical chairs on Tuesday. "Like I alluded to in Kansas City when Quez [Watkins] got dinged up a little bit, him and Jalen [Reagor] came to talk to me and said, ‘Hey, let me just take this guy.’

"And you saw Quez was back out there after that one with Hightower [against the Chargers on Sunday]. He just needed a break more than anything else. But as long as the communication is there and we're all on the same page, it's nothing too worrisome. They all get the work, especially on Wednesdays when we do our kickoff returns."

Watkins started the season as the KR1 and the second-year pro has all the speed you could possibly need to be dangerous, but he seems to be missing the feel for the job, along with the lower-body strength to break through initial contact, a trait that all the great kick returners possess.

Watkins has a team-high eight returns but is averaging just 17.3 per opportunity with a long of 24.

Considering a touchback means you start at the 25-yard line, that's become the default setting for the Eagles.

When Watkins got banged-up against the Chiefs, the job shifted to Reagor, who was much more effective in a limited sample size, with five returns total for a more-than-respectable 27.8 average, including a long of 44 at Carolina.

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Considering Reagor continues to go backward as a receiver with the offense keeping him involved in the kick-return game could be a way of salvaging things until the offseason when the Eagles may be forced to admit a 2020 first-round mistake.

The problem there is Regaor hurt his ankle in Detroit during Week 8 and had a scaled-back role on Sunday against the Chargers. That gave practice-squad elevation Hightower, another speedster, an opportunity on KRs that didn't go well.

"He was rehabbing," Clay said of Reagor. "I just didn't want to put him in that bad predicament right there. If we would’ve have had a punt returner, he would have been out there because he was out there on practice on Thursday. It's just one of those things where I don't want to put the player or the person in a bad predicament with them coming off an injury."

Hightower took his opportunity out from two yards deep in the corner of the end zone and netted 17 yards, essentially a minus-10 from what a kneel down would have given the Eagles.

"You put yourself in a bad predicament because they cut off 80 percent of the field right there," Clay said. "So, it was on me just in terms of telling him, ‘Hey, if you're running sideways, let it go. We'll take the touchback at the 25.’ Luckily, the offense did a heck of job of bailing us out. They scored on that 85-yard play right there. That's more on myself just being – and, you know, John got called up for that game. He's probably amped up and everything.

"So, it's more on me, slowing him down, ‘Hey, you'll get your opportunity. If you're running sideways, let's just take the touchback right there.’"

Right now Clay has three options that might all feel like pressing the issue because they aren't getting many touches with the offense.

"You, obviously, kind of know that going in. It never worries you," Clay said of the predicament. "... These guys want to make plays."

-John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on both PhillyVoice.com and YouTube. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen

Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles or www.eaglemaven.com and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.