Paul Domowitch: Rookie Boykin gives Eagles a kick-return threat

Brandon Boykin, a rookie out of Georgia, could help improve the Eagles' return game. (Yong Kim/Staff file photo)

BETHLEHEM - Brandon Boykin caught the first-quarter kickoff 8 yards deep in the end zone, which is deep inside special-teams coach Bobby April's no-fly zone.

Boykin knew he should have just taken a knee. But it was his first touch in an NFL game, albeit a meaningless preseason opener, and the adrenaline was pumping and, well, there was just no way he wasn't going to tuck that baby under his arm and take off.

"That was my first one and I just kind of had the excitement inside of me to get that return out," the rookie said. "It turned out good."

Yes it did. Boykin took off behind fullback Stanley Havili and picked up 46 yards, which happens to be 13 yards longer than any kickoff return the Eagles had last season.

"Our cutoff [for running kickoffs out of the end zone] is 5 yards," April said. "That one obviously went deeper than that and we talked about it later. He was anxious, I guess. But he returned it pretty good."

After finishing 31st in the league in kickoff returns and 27th in punt returns last season, the Eagles' return game pretty much has no place to go but up this year. But April has two reasons to think it might just go way up.

One is Boykin and the other is his rookie punt returner, Damaris Johnson, who had a 30-yard return against the Steelers negated by a penalty.

"They're both really good players," April said. "They're very talented. I don't know how they stand in the big scheme of things as far as making the team, but we know they can return."

April can rest easy. Both Boykin and Johnson appear to be safe bets to make the team's season-opening 53-man roster. Boykin, a fourth-round pick out of Georgia, is competing against veteran Joselio Hanson for the nickel corner job. Worst-case scenario, he'll wind up as the fourth or fifth corner.

Johnson is an undrafted, free-agent wide receiver from Tulsa who has had an outstanding camp and very well could open the season as the team's No. 4 wideout. He had a team-high four catches against the Steelers, including one for a 70-yard touchdown.

"Both of them were experienced college returners," April said. "Howie [Roseman, general manager] did a good job of tracking those guys. We were on them all the way. Both of them fell a lot more than we thought.

"We really liked Boykin. When he was there in the fourth, wow, it was unbelievable. Damaris, for him to end up being an FA, that was big. Plus, to get him, he could've gone to 32 places."

If Boykin pans out, the Eagles' draft-day decision to trade down in the second round so they could recoup the fourth-round pick they hooked him with is going to look great on Roseman's resume.

As for Johnson, he fell partly because he's not tall enough to get on most of the rides at Dorney Park, but mostly because he took advantage of an overly generous Macy's employee discount that his girlfriend gave him, and got thrown off the team his senior year.

Unbelievably, despite being the NCAA's all-time leader in all-purpose yards, he not only wasn't drafted, but according to Roseman, just two teams - the Eagles and the Saints - offered him a free-agent contract.

And you thought you had to be smart to run an NFL personnel department.

The rule change last year moving kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line has dramatically devalued the kickoff return. Forty-five percent of the kickoffs last season resulted in touchbacks, compared to just 17 percent the year before.

The Eagles' 39 kickoff returns equaled their fewest in 58 years. But while there may be fewer opportunities, they still need better production than last year, when they averaged just 20.9 yards per kickoff return. Only the 2-14 Colts were worse (18.6).

"Fifty percent of the balls aren't going to be returnable anymore," said Boykin, who returned four kickoffs for touchdowns at Georgia.

"It's a strong point of my game, and to have it kind of cut in half like that, takes away from what I like to do and what I can do. So, whenever I do get a chance, if it's not too deep, I want to make the most of it."

April has said the Eagles' problems on kickoff returns last year were more the fault of the scheme and the preparation for the scheme than the return man (usually Dion Lewis, who had 31 of their 39 returns).

"Deep balls killed us," April said earlier in camp. "There were a lot of kicks 4-5-6 yards deep [in the end zone] and we didn't time them up well enough."

Still, Boykin appears to be a considerable upgrade over Lewis.

The Eagles weren't looking to upgrade the punt-return position. DeSean Jackson is one of the league's most dangerous punt returners, even though he averaged a career-low 6.7 yards per attempt last year. He led the league in punt-return average in '09 and has four returns for touchdowns.

But coach Andy Reid wants to ween him from that role so that he can keep his legs fresh for his day job as a wide receiver.

"Listen, for the past several years, if we want DeSean back there returning punts, I'm all for it," offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. "He's a playmaker in the punt-return [game]. He scores touchdowns. He's won games for us before in that role.

"If we need him back there, let's go do it and we'll adjust on offense. But if we have a like-player back there," they'd prefer to use him and save Jackson for offense.

Shortly after training camp started, April was singing the praises of another undrafted rookie punt returner, cornerback Cliff Harris. Likened his skills to Jackson's when he came out of Cal. But there is no guarantee Harris is even going to make the team.

So, unless he starts dropping punts left and right the next few weeks, Johnson likely will be the team's season-opening punt returner.

"I love doing it,'' said Johnson, who is just 5-8 and 170 pounds after a heavy meal. "It's a big play in the game. It can change the game, give us a spark, give us momentum."

Said Boykin: "Everybody knows last year wasn't a good year [for the Eagles] as far as returning the ball. Damaris and I were just talking about the opportunities we're getting to make an impact as rookies. We both want to show what we can do and make our mark on the team. We both have the ability to take it to the house. Hopefully we can make it happen."


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