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Five years ago, nobody would have thought twice about Jeremy Maclin practicing on punt return.
Five years ago, Maclin had entered the NFL as a first-round pick of the Eagles, a dynamic receiver out of the University of Missouri who made All-America twice and was one of the college game’s best multi-dimensional threats. Of his 33 career college touchdowns, he scored three on punt returns and two more on kickoffs.
But his silky smooth return moves never translated to the professional level. In his first four seasons, Maclin had a grand total of 76 punt return yards, 149 kick return yards and no touchdowns. Last year, he didn’t return a punt or kick for the first time in his career.
It seemed somewhat odd Monday to see Maclin at Eagles practice among the candidates catching punts. Not only had the past coaching regime completely phased him out of the return game, but the organization also has stacked up plenty of specialists over the past two years, and new coach Chip Kelly has already endorsed DeSean Jackson to become more involved again on punt returns.
“Yeah, we'll look at Mac back there,” Kelly said, sticking to his clean-slate approach. To date, Kelly hasn’t anointed any of his players into starting spots yet, even the obvious ones.
“Again, it's May, so we're going to take a look at him and Damaris [Johnson] and DeSean and [receiver] Nick Miller. Russell Shepard is a guy that's returned punts before, one of the rookies that's out here. So we'll get a bunch of those guys because you never know in a game; all of a sudden two guys are hurt.
“When you've only got a 46-man [game] roster, someone has got to go back there, and hopefully it's someone that's fielded punts before. [Maclin] has got some experience at it, but we'll take a look at him. But does that mean he's going to be our starting punt returner? I have absolutely no idea right now.”
Maclin sent mixed signals when asked about his most recent punt return opportunity. In one breath, he seemed ambivalent, telling reporters that he’s “available” and “comfortable catching punts.”
Pressed further, Maclin said “he would love to.”
“But at the same time, whatever they ask me to do, they ask me to do,” he said, another response that sounded half-hearted.
Maclin has a few million reasons to elude punt returns. He enters the fifth and final year of his rookie deal and stands to see plenty of snaps in an offense that hopes to run upwards of 80 plays per game, at least.
Maclin has played 16 games just once in his first your years and still hasn’t exceeded 1,000 yards. His best shot to earn a blockbuster contract is by staying healthy and having the most productive receiving season of his career.
Surely, his value would benefit if he could mix in some spicy returns, but it’s also an area where he could suffer an injury. The team seems more determined to get the ball in Jackson’s hands a little more, presumably in late-game scenarios. Maclin, at best, appears to be Plan B or Plan C if Johnson or Sheppard don’t pan out.
It’s not as if Maclin lobbied to practice punt returns; he just happened to hear his name called.
“That’s something they knew I did in college,” he said. “Like I said, I’m willing to do whatever.”
Maclin’s most opportunities came during his rookie year, when he returned six punts and seven kicks. From the start, he looked timid and tentative, not like the phenom who became just the second player in NCAA history to record more than 2,000 combined yards on just receptions and kick returns.
He averaged just five yards per punt return as a rookie and 17.7 on kickoffs, with his longest overall return going 28 yards. Ellis Hobbs and Victor Harris combined to return 29 kicks and Quintin Demps returned six more as Maclin eventually faded out of the picture.
Maclin totaled just four returns in each of his next two seasons and last year didn’t get any opportunities, even as the Eagles degenerated into one of the NFL’s worst return teams.
His last return came Nov. 13, 2011, against the Cardinals, a game Jackson missed while serving a team suspension. Maclin returned two punts for 17 yards.
“Like I said, whatever they want me to do,” Maclin said. “If they do, I’ll do it to the best of my ability. If they don’t want me to, I’m not going to do it. I think I can be valuable there.”