Michael Clay Plays Coy on Returner Options

The Eagles STC only has a few options to return kicks but sill wants Atlanta guessing
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PHILADELPHIA - Nick Sirianni has been pretty consistent in saying that he feels like the Eagles will have a competitive advantage, at least early in the season, because teams don’t really know what schemes Philadelphia is going to roll out come Sept. 12 in Atlanta.

During the preseason, vanilla was an adventurous way to describe both Sirianni and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon as the Eagles just lined up and played during an 0-2-1 exhibition slate.

“One of the things we have to our advantage is that nobody really knows what we're running,” the Eagles rookie head coach explained last month. “To say we're going to show everything [in Week 1 of the preseason] or the following preseason game or the following preseason games, it's just not going to be the case.”

The subterfuge extends to special teams where the newly-minted, thirtysomething coordinator, Michael Clay, declined to confirm his returners against the Falcons this week.

“We don’t want to give Atlanta a special insight, but as you saw, we rotate a lot of guys through preseason,” Clay said. “There were a lot of guys that have dynamic speed, dynamic cutting abilities. So, we have a good thought in terms of a coaching staff of who we’re going to throw out there, but we have a nice room to pick from.”

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As far as potential options on the 53-man Eagles roster, Falcons STC Marquice Williams shouldn’t need to do much digging to figure things out.

Greg Ward and Jalen Reagor split punt-return duties during the preseason, and it was Reagor and Quez Watkins handling kickoffs. The one curveball could be putting rookie WR DeVonta Smith on the field in a high-leverage situation if the Eagles need an explosive punt return.

“We’re able to have, at least on this team, a lot of returners that are good enough to do it and be effective at doing it,” Clay said. “So, for me, it’s just making sure they’re confident and they’re ready to go out there, regardless of the situation they’re in."

About the only other surprise, Clay could unleash in Atlanta is the speedy Jason Huntley on kick returns if the Eagles decide to elevate him for the Week 1 game but that seems doubtful for two reasons: Philadelphia will value other jobs a little bit more when it comes to elevation and Huntley has been dealing with a rib injury.

The PR situation is shaping up to be a lot like last season under Dave Fipp when Ward was tasked with securing the football when a return was unlikely and the more explosive Reagor trotted out when a return was in play.

Clay, meanwhile, also noted that he may be at the mercy of the offensive game plan at times with Reagor at least penciled in to increase his workload there.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” said Clay. “There could be an explosive play on offense and we can’t use them at the special teams situation. That’s why we have another guy in the holster ready to go to excel at the same [level], maybe even better at that level.”

-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.