As far as NFL debuts go, Jalen Reagor’s didn’t get off to a great start.
Reagor, the No. 21 pick in April, didn’t have to wait long to touch the ball. Just 1:10 into the game, he ran up to return a punt from Tress Way. He called a fair catch and that’s when the ball went right between his arms and on to the turf.
He muffed it.
Luckily, Craig James was able to dive on it and the Eagles retained possession. It was a scary moment and, honestly, not the best way to start a professional career. Eagles special teams coordinator Dave Fipp pointed out that it was a tough situation for a rookie. Reagor was returning his first NFL punt and there were really four guys in his face because the blocking wasn’t great. But, no excuses, Reagor needs to field it cleanly.
"I don't blame anybody but myself,” Reagor said. “I mean, I could look the ball in. It was just that, you know, just the traffic closer in my lap, and you know like Coach Fipp says, he said a few things in a meeting just, you know, 'Look it in.'
“It's other jobs that can be done but ultimately I'm the returner, it's my responsibility to catch the ball, so like I said I just gotta keep catching them, it's repetition. I don't blame nobody, I'm not down about it. There's a reason I'm back there."
The reason Reagor is back there is the same reason the Eagles drafted him in the first round. He’s explosive. He has the ability to do special things when the ball is in his hands.
That’s why it was so encouraging to see the Eagles put him back there again later in the game. Washington punted seven times on Sunday and Reagor was back there for five of them. While Fipp wouldn’t necessarily say it, it seems like Greg Ward will be the return man deep inside the 20, when the Eagles basically need the surer-handed of the two.
Nothing against Ward, but he just isn’t as explosive as Reagor. And that’s why the Eagles can live with it if Reagor muffs one here or there, like he did in Week 1 and like he did a couple times early in training camp.
Fipp on Tuesday expressed extreme confidence in Reagor’s abilities as a return man. He’s not going to let one muffed punt — the disaster was diverted anyway — derail that.
“The bottom line is I think when you watch young returners throughout the league, and if you just go back in history, I think Devin Hester has more muffs than anybody, and he turned out to be a real good player,” Fipp said. “I think Darren Sproles put a bunch on the ground early in his career.
“I’m not saying it's acceptable or tolerable, but when you look closely at that stuff, there's a little bit of a history of young players doing that. But we're excited about him. We're excited about what he brings to us. There's no doubt in my mind he'll continue to get better and better.”
That’s a good point. Sometimes the best returners muff some. And Hester is a good example.
Here’s a story from the Chicago Tribune from November of 2006 in which there was some concern about Hester’s propensity for muffing punts. Even though he was in the middle of a historic rookie season to start off a career as one of the greatest returners in NFL history, he struggled with muffs.
Longtime special teams coach Dave Toub was in Chicago at the time and was patient with the then-rookie.
"I'm not worried about him," Toub said. "He's a rookie, and he's going to make mistakes. But he's had a lot more catches than muffs.
"He's just got to realize where he is on the field. He's got to put his heels on the 10-yard line, and if he drops down 5 yards, he's got to let the ball go. We just need to work more at it in practice and he'll improve. He'll learn from his mistake."
We’re not saying that Reagor will ever become the type of home run threat Hester was as a returner, but it’s worth noting that sometimes it’s worth putting up with a mistake here or there to gain a ton of explosiveness.
Heck, the most spectacular punt return in Eagles history started off with a muff by DeSean Jackson. And if he doesn’t muff that punt in the Meadowlands, he probably doesn’t take it to the house.
And Reagor had one that looked an awful lot like it at TCU.
Reagor is going to continue to grow as a part of the Eagles’ offense but they were really excited about his special teams ability when they drafted him too. While there have been a few muffs over the last month, they’ve seen growth in other areas of his return game. On Sunday, he was super vocal to clear out his blockers as a ball rolled around their feet.
And, ultimately, this is a matter of the reward definitely being worth the risk.
“We know there's going to be some ups and downs with every young player,” Fipp said. “We're going to hang in there with him. He's really explosive. We're excited about him."