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Q. “Who do you think is likely to receive punts and kickoffs for special teams? Think Chip will put D-Jax back there in key situations?”
- Raymond Elliott
A. Chip Kelly has already discussed reprising DeSean Jackson as a punt-return weapon, though not at the expense of the Pro Bowl wideout’s health. Jackson had become a non-factor in the return game over the past two years and returned just one punt last season. That’s because Andy Reid believed that he had a championship-caliber team that could compensate weak special teams with an elite offense and defense. Reid greatly miscalculated his talent on both sides of the ball, which led to his downfall and firing. Kelly would like to make a nice splash in his first season, so I’d expect to see Jackson become an important part of the return game again. He probably won’t be the primary guy, but I’d be stunned if Jackson didn’t get double-digit chances and all opportunities in the fourth quarters of close games.
Damaris Johnson should be more comfortable in Year 2. He’s a natural returner and could contend to be the primary kick and punt returner. Brandon Boykin is also a natural kick returner who had trouble carrying over his prowess last year as a rookie but will get his shot at training camp.
Jeremy Maclin got reps at both the spring camps but I doubt he’s willing to be the main returner in a contract season. He also hasn’t looked comfortable there despite his track record of explosive returns in college. Some guys just don’t adapt that part of the game to the pros. Felix Jones was a dynamite returner for the Cowboys but hasn’t stayed healthy in his career and isn’t a lock to make the team.
The newcomers to watch are wide receiver Arrelious Benn and rookie free agent Russell Shepard. Benn, who came over in a trade with Tampa Bay, is big and physical. He averaged 23.5 yards on 13 returns last year but also has struggled to stay healthy. Shepard, a multidimensional threat from LSU, wasn’t a return specialist in college but has the speed and quickness that could translate to the pros.