So far in training camp, the three players handling punt returner responsibilities were DeSean Jackson, Damaris Johnson, and Jeremy Maclin. With Maclin done for the season, it's down to just Jackson and Johnson.
After practice yesterday, Johnson was asked about Jackson's recent proclaimation that he is the #1 punt returner. "I think it's competition," Johnson said. "D Jack is a great punt returner. He's proven. I have one season under my belt, but now I just think it's competition. With a guy like DeSean Jackson to compete with, that will bring the best out of me."
Johnson may not even have to beat out Jackson after Maclin's injury, which left the Eagles somewhat thin at the WR position. Jackson is clearly the best remaining WR on the roster. After Jackson, the Eagles are left with Johnson, Jason Avant, Arrelious Benn, Riley Cooper, Greg Salas, Russell Shepard, BJ Cunningham, Ifeanyi Momah, Will Murphy, and David Ball.
Avant has 259 career catches for 3,199 yards, but his role has almost always been that of a slot receiver. The remaining WRs on the roster has a combined 151 catches for 2,061 yards for their careers. Cooper, Benn, and Momah all have good size and can be physical, while Johnson and Shepard are smaller guys who have the potential to be speedy playmakers once they get the ball in their hands. It's an intriguing group, but also an unproven one.
With so much uncertainty at the WR position, the decision could be made that Jackson will no longer return punts, or perhaps only return them situationally, since it is now imperative that he stay healthy.
Johnson was up and down as a punt returner last season, and acknowledged that he sometimes tried to make things happen at the wrong time. "Most people say you don't field the ball inside the 10," said Johnson, "but coach (Bobby) April gave us the leeway top field the ball no deeper than the 8. I got a little heat from the fans that I fielded the ball inside the 10, but I was doing the right thing most of the time. But sometimes, I got carried away fielding the ball at the 5, or the 3."
One such occasion in which Johnson fielded the ball inside the 8 at the wrong time was Week 2 against Baltimore. With a little over a minute left in the first half against the Ravens last year, Baltimore had a drive stall at their own 41, when punter Sam Koch got off a beauty of a punt, deep into Eagles territory. Damaris Johnson not only fielded the ball at the 3, but he did so on a nicely angled punt to the sideline:
His return went out to the 6, where he was promptly gang tackled:
The Eagles then called 3 run plays that went nowhere, but were designed to waste the Ravens' time outs. Chas Henry then proceeded to hit an awful 38 yard shankapotomous with 2.9 seconds of hang time that Jacobi Jones returned to about the 39 yard line.
The Ravens then hit a long FG heading into the half:
As the teams headed into the locker room, the camera was put on poor Andy Reid while Greg Gumble says "Anyone who wonders whether time management is important or not...”
That would be an example of a time when Johnson got "carried away."
Ironically, Johnson's best moment of the season came when he fielded at ball at the 2 against Dallas. He returned the punt 98 yards for a late score that, if nothing else, gave Dallas fans some agita late in a game that they had previously seemed to have all but wrapped up.
The decision to field the ball at the 2 in that scenario made sense, as the Eagles badly needed a huge play, and had little to lose. The decision to field the punt at the 3 against Baltimore, however, was completely ill-advised. Johnson's decision making in that regard should continue to improve as he gains more NFL experience.
To be determined what Johnson's role in the regular offense will be, but with Maclin's injury and the need to preserve Jackson, it is probably safe to pencil Johnson in on the 53-man roster.
For the record, new special teams coach Dave Fipp does not want punts fielded inside the 10.