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 Injury Update: Zach Ertz clears concussion protocol


Eagles Injury Update: Zach Ertz clears concussion protocol

The Eagles finally got some good news this week. 

Tight end Zach Ertz has cleared the NFL's concussion protocol and will be able to practice as the Eagles begin preparations for the Giants. 

"He's good to go," head coach Doug Pederson said. 

Ertz missed the Rams game with the concussion, although it appeared he was close to being cleared then. 

Despite missing two games this season, Ertz still has 57 catches for 663 yards and seven touchdowns. Only Travis Kelce, Rob Gronkowski and Delanie Walker have more receiving yards among tight ends. Only Jimmy Graham (9) has more touchdown catches.

Left guard Stefen Wisniewski is "doing good," according to Pederson. Wisniewski left Sunday's game with an ankle injury but will practice Wednesday. He will be monitored, but Pederson said Wisniewski should be able to play this weekend. 

Wednesday is a big day for Sidney Jones. The Eagles' second-round pick, who has been recovering from a torn Achilles that dropped him out of the first round, will practice for the first time. 

Pederson said the plan is to bring along Jones slowly, much like the Eagles did with Ronald Darby a few weeks ago. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said this will almost be like the first week of OTAs for the rookie. 

"All due respect to our trainers, they are not a challenge to cover, and he's only been working with those guys," Schwartz said. 

Pederson said the Eagles will use Jones on their scout team and get him some special teams work. 

What does Pederson want to see? 

"We've watched [Jones] through his progression and his training these last few weeks," he said. "And now just want to see him in football conditions, the true transition of stopping and starting. Making a play on the ball and seeing his instincts and things like that, things we haven't been able to monitor this season."

Torn ACL, players' day off, and Wentz still helps Foles plan for Giants

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Torn ACL, players' day off, and Wentz still helps Foles plan for Giants

They've been together every day since training camp began. Carson Wentz and Nick Foles.

And now that Wentz's season is over and Foles is the Eagles' quarterback?

That won't change.

"He'll be a huge help," Foles said Tuesday of Wentz. "He was around today. (I was) just having conversations with him and how grateful we all are that Nate (Sudfeld), him and I have gotten to spend so much time together developing that relationship.

"He's going to come back stronger than ever. I know his mentality, him as a person, him as an athlete, this is just part of his journey, and we all continue to pray for him. And he's going to be instrumental every single week here on out for this team."

What does it say about Wentz that Tuesday — the players' day off and just two days after suffering that devastating injury — he was at the NovaCare Complex working with Foles and going over what he'll face Sunday against the Giants?

But nobody who's been paying attention all year should be surprised.

"He's fully supportive," Foles said. "We've been together this whole year, preseason, OTAs, and that he's going to be there every step of the way and I know he's got my back, and that will never change, and that goes both ways."

Foles will make his first start since last November and first in an Eagles uniform since November 2014 on Sunday when the Eagles face the Giants at 1 p.m. at the Meadowlands.

A win gives the Eagles a first-round bye in the playoffs. A win combined with a Vikings loss to the Bengals gives the Eagles home-field through the NFC Championship Game.

Foles is 15-9 as the Eagles' starting quarterback, including a 14-4 record since his rookie year.

Wentz was 11-2 in his 13 starts this year and is a Pro Bowl lock and still in the MVP race despite the season-ending injury.

"I think Carson will be a huge support," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "I mean, first of all, I can't even tell you the kind of support Nick was for Carson, and I'm sure Nick will still be that kind of support for Carson going through what he's going through.

"That (quarterback meeting) room cannot, from a chemistry standpoint and from a character standpoint, it can't get any better. That room is the best room. So Carson will add into that. 

"Just getting to know Carson the way we all know him, he'll help, but he's a guy who has a lot of ideas, and he's very engaged like that, as is Nick. So I think Carson will have the maturity to understand, 'Hey, Nick's running the show right now, so just be there to support him in whatever way he can.'"

Because of the injury, Wentz likely won't be allowed on the sidelines with the other quarterbacks and coaches and work directly with Foles on gameday.

But head coach Doug Pederson said he expects Wentz to be with the team Sundays and helping Foles in some capacity.

"A lot like Jordan Hicks and Jason Peters and these guys, he can be around and be in the meeting rooms," Pederson said.

"He can watch the tape (and) be there on gameday and just be another set of eyes for the quarterbacks, for Nick, and just having his input and having him around … it would be a big boost.

"(It's) an opportunity for him now to kind of put the coaching hat on and to help Nick."

Chase Daniel was Wentz's backup last year, but the Eagles released Daniel on March 13, the same day they signed Foles to a two-year, $11 million contract.

Foles and Wentz have become very close over these last 10 months, and Foles said he'll draw on that now that he's replacing his friend.

"Right now, as a teammate, someone who cares a lot about him, you hurt, but you're there to support him, pray for him," Foles said.

"Carson is such a huge part of this organization and will be for a long time and he's done so much for this team on the field and in the locker room, and a big part of coming here.

"Well, my job now is to step in that huddle and keep this thing rolling, and that's what I plan on doing."