Eagles could use more happy returns

PHILADELPHIA -- We've looked at the Eagles defense position-by-position, with a special focus on areas of offseason need. Before we get to the offense, it's worth discussing any underrated area that could use some upgrading in free agency and the draft.

Special teams -- in this case, the return game.

The Eagles ranked 26th in the NFL with an average kickoff return of 21.4 yards and 27th with an average punt return of just 6.6 yards. That's just not good enough. With such an emphasis placed on field position, in fact, it's almost embarrassing.

Damaris Johnson is not the sole reason, although his late-season disappearance suggests that head coach Chip Kelly and special teams coach Dave Fipp were not satisfied with his work. Johnson was the primary return man in the first half of the season and was barely used in the second half.

Brandon Boykin and Brad Smith took over the kickoff return duties. Neither did appreciably better than Johnson, who averaged 25.9 yards per return. DeSean Jackson was the other punt returner. He averaged 5.1 yards per return, more than 3 yards less than Johnson's 8.3 yard average.

Conclusion: Boykin led the team in interceptions as the nickel cornerback. Jackson was the team's leading wide receiver. Players who are that involved in the offense and defense just aren't as committed in the return game. As for Smith, he was a midseason pickup who never really showed much.

So the Eagles could very much use a fast, dynamic return specialist. It might not be as glaring a need as safety, for example, but it's up there pretty high.

Chicago's Devin Hester is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent. Hester is still a scary returner who handles punts and kickoffs. He's also 31 and not much of a factor as a wide receiver.

Ideally, the Eagles would be able to draft a player like Cordarrelle Patterson, the rookie wide receiver who burst into the league as an impact return man for Minnesota. Patterson was the guy who prompted the Eagles to kick short to disastrous effect in their game against the Vikings.

Guys like Patterson aren't easy to find, but the Eagles could well find themselves drafting a wide receiver in the first or second round. LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. averaged 26.4 yards per kickoff return and 8.4 yards per punt return. ESPN expert Mel Kiper Jr. had the Eagles taking Beckham in the first round in his recent mock draft.

Returners aren't solo artists. It takes sound blocking schemes and good coaching for a return game to be consistently dangerous. But a home-run hitter in the lead role is a good place to start.

There are three levels of special teams -- the kind that break down and cost your team games, the kind that are competent enough to go mostly unnoticed and the kind that make big plays and steal you a win or two.

The Eagles are in that middle area. They clearly want to get to the third level, and a game-breaking return man would be a huge step in that direction.