In 2016, the Eagles were tied for the best kick return average in the NFL at 27.3 yards per return and they were the only team in the NFL to have two kick return touchdowns.
And there's still room for improvement.
"I think we can even be better with the kick return game," head coach Doug Pederson said. "Wendell (Smallwood) shows some explosiveness back there. It's exciting to put the ball in his hands. He's a tough runner, being a running back and definitely has the speed to go the distance. Yeah, we can definitely improve there. It'll be a great opportunity for him this weekend."
Smallwood, entering his second NFL season, will be the Eagles' primary kick returner this season, Pederson confirmed on Wednesday. Smallwood returned kicks in 2016 but started off the year as the Birds' secondary option after Josh Huff.
As a rookie, Smallwood took his third-career return 86 yards to the house. It actually happened on Oct. 16 in Washington, so he'll return to the scene of the touchdown this weekend when the Eagles open their season at FedEx Field. From that touchdown, Smallwood just remembers having good blocking in front of him, finding a hole and bursting through it. On that touchdown, he and Huff were both back to return and Washington booted it away from Huff.
"You had to pick your poison," Smallwood said. "Me or Huff."
Huff was obviously released during last season after being pulled over and arrested for crossing into New Jersey with a hand gun. So this season, Smallwood is the Eagles' No. 1 option. Nelson Agholor is likely No. 2.
Smallwood said he has loved returning since high school. He has just two NFL touchdowns -- one rushing, one returning -- and said the celebration for the return was more emphatic.
"I think it's more of a team effort on special teams because everyone has to do something right," he said. "People work so hard in that area, it being special teams and not a lot of points come off special teams. I think it means a lot, all the work we put in and everyone getting their job done. It barely happens but it happens sometimes and when it does, it's big plays. It definitely means a lot. I feel like we celebrate special teams touchdowns more than we do offense and defense."
Special teams touchdowns are hard to come by in the NFL, so it makes sense that the celebration matches. Under special teams coordinator Dave Fipp, the Eagles have had a top special teams unit for the last few years. The unit lost several key pieces from a year ago, including Jon Dorenbos and Bryan Braman; it'll be up to Fipp to replace them and keep the engine running.
Kick return is just one small part of the special teams puzzle, but it's an area where Smallwood can make an impact. And it's an area where Pederson thinks there's still room for improvement.
"Yeah, it definitely is an X factor," Smallwood said. "We have a lot of starters on there actually. We got a lot of guys that take pride in special teams. Fipp tells us every day, man. He drills it into us every day how important it is to us. I think we approach it every day like we're going to make a difference in the game. Turn good into great. Turn bad into good."