Eagles

Even more room for improvement with Wendell Smallwood as kick returner

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Even more room for improvement with Wendell Smallwood as kick returner

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."

Eagles Stay or Go — A few easy choices for once

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Eagles Stay or Go — A few easy choices for once

Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro continue our series examining the future of the world champion Eagles.

Mack Hollins
Roob: Hollins wasn't really a factor later in the season, once Torrey Smith got going, but he did show early in the year what kind of player he can be, notably with that 64-yard TD catch in the second Redskins game. Depending on what the Eagles do about Smith, Hollins should be either the Eagles' third or fourth receiver this fall. Either way, he'll be here, and I expect him to make a big jump in Year 2.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Hollins caught just 16 passes as a rookie and it seemed like he just never started producing the way he seems capable of. Even when Smith struggled, Hollins got more playing time and didn't produce. The good news is he's still young and plays a role on special teams. The Eagles will probably bolster their receiving corps in some way, but if they don't, Hollins will have a shot at starting if Smith is gone next season. 

Verdict: STAYS

Alshon Jeffery
Roob: Jeffery really played better than his stats this year. He made every big catch, caught every big third-down pass, made huge plays in the end zone. Jeffery was a star receiver without a star receiver's stats. His unselfish attitude carried over to the rest of the receivers and throughout the roster. And he did it all with a rotator cuff injury that required post-season surgery. Can't wait to see what Alshon can do healthy.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Jeffery didn't put up eye-popping numbers during the regular season, but if you needed any proof he's a No. 1 receiver, go back and watch Super Bowl LII, when he made that ridiculous catch in the end zone for a huge touchdown. The good thing about Jeffery is he really doesn't care at all about his numbers. There are a lot of diva receivers in the NFL, but Jeffery clearly isn't one of them. All he cared about last year was hoisting the Lombardi Trophy and he certainly helped get the Eagles there. 

Verdict: STAYS

Malcolm Jenkins
Roob: Jenkins has so many roles on and off the field — community activist, NFLPA organizer, locker room leader — it's easy to forget just how good a player he is. Jenkins has been here four years and has had four very solid, very consistent, very productive seasons. He made his second Pro Bowl this year and joined Bill Bradley (3) and Dawk (7) as only the third Eagles safety since 1960 to make multiple Pro Bowls. Jenkins is signed to a cap-friendly deal through 2020 and should be an Eagle for many years to come.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: As important as Jenkins is to the Eagles as a safety and defensive back, you could make a legitimate argument that he's even more important to the team as a leader and man. There's a reason he became the guy to follow up Doug Pederson's postgame speeches. He isn't just the leader of the defense; he's the leader of the entire team. And on the field, he's still playing at a really high, Pro Bowl caliber level. He's 30 now but is still signed through 2020 and maybe outside of Fletcher Cox is the Eagles' most important defensive player. 

Verdict: STAYS

Eagles Stay or Go — 2 young linebackers

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Eagles Stay or Go — 2 young linebackers

Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro continue our series examining the future of the world champion Eagles.

Darrell Greene
Roob: The Hall of Fame cornerback is now 58 years old and 21 years removed from his last Pro Bowl season with the Redskins. Oh wait … wrong Darrell Green. This is Darrell GREENE, and he's a 6-foot-3, 320-pound guard out of San Diego State who's been on the Eagles' practice squad most of the last two years. The Eagles liked Greene enough to keep him around the last couple years, and unless they see something in Chance Warmack that I missed, Greene has a chance to stick around as a young O-line prospect.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Greene has been around now for the last two seasons. He was without a team for most of 2017; the Eagles didn't bring him back to the practice squad until December. The offensive guard had some real potential coming out of San Diego State, and the Eagles paid him a lot of guaranteed money to sign as an undrafted free agent before 2016. But he's never really impressed them enough to stick around for good. 

Verdict: GOES

Jordan Hicks
Roob: With Hicks, it's always about durability, not ability. Hicks has played more than half a season only once in his three NFL seasons, and since he's under contract for 2018 with a modest $2.068 million cap figure, he's obviously not going anywhere. The question is what the Eagles do with him after 2018 when he's due to become a free agent. Hicks can play. We all know that. He needs to prove this year that he can stay healthy in order to get a big-money deal a year from now.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Losing Hicks was a problem in 2017 and his absence started showing up late in the season. He's a big-time playmaker. It's a shame he got hurt last year because if he didn't, he'd be in line for a payday. For now, he'll be back in the final year of his four-year rookie contract until he can prove he's the same player he was pre-injury. 

Verdict: STAYS

Kamu Grugier-Hill
Roob: Grugier-Hill must be Howie Roseman's dream. He's signed at the minimum through 2019 but is an awfully valuable member of the roster — a reserve linebacker and emergency kicker and maybe the team's best special teamer. Kamu's not going anywhere.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: He really doesn't play at all as a linebacker, but Grugier-Hill has become one of the best special teams players in the NFL and had a real chance to be named a Pro Bowler in 2017. He led the team in special teams tackles with 19 last season. He's still young, cheap and is a big part of Dave Fipp's group. 

Verdict: STAYS