If there’s one area the defending Super Bowl champions could stand to use some improvement, it’s in the kick return game.
Shelton Gibson might be able to help.
In Thursday’s preseason game against the Patriots, Gibson returned four kicks for 121 yards (30.3 per return) and brought one back 46 yards. To put that into perspective, the Eagles returned a league-low 18 kicks last year — the fewest in the league — and averaged just 19.7 yards per return. That was tied for 26th in the NFL.
Gibson, who has had a great preseason as a receiver, has plenty of experience as a kick returner after doing it at West Virginia University.
“It’s natural,” he said.
In his three years at WVU, Gibson returned 53 kicks for 1,244 yards and one touchdown. It makes sense that the Eagles didn’t try him in that role last year; his head was swimming enough as a receiver. But now that he’s caught up there, the Eagles can already expand his role if they choose. I’ve been a proponent for Darren Sproles' getting the chance to return kicks (see story), but Gibson should get a shot too.
NFL kickoffs are going to be a little different this year because of new rules. Players on the kicking team are now no longer able to get a running start and there’s a zone where blocking is not allowed. Basically, this new play is still probably going to look like a kickoff but will have a little more in common with a punt.
Now that he’s figured it out, Gibson seems to like it.
“It’s kind of different because they’re not getting down there as fast as they usually would,” he said. “You have to wait for it to set up a little bit more and be a little more patient instead of rushing into it.”
This was Gibson’s 46-yard return from Thursday. You’ll notice he’s right. The play takes a split second longer to set up than an old kickoff. But Gibson has time to look up and survey the field.
Right there is the point of his little head fake move. There’s a hole in front of him, but Gibson is heady enough to notice the Patriots lost contain and are coming in too hot. He’s about to put on the move and kick it into high speed around the corner.
This was a 29-yard return from Gibson in the same game. This one definitely shows off his patience a little bit.
He really needs to let it set up in front of him. From there, he shows off a little shiftiness.
“It feels good,” Gibson said. “But also, I kind of like start later than just hitting it full force right off the bat. I want it to set up; I want everybody to set up their blocks and everything.”
The Eagles ought to be really good this year. They bring back most of the starters from their Super Bowl season and might even be better (on paper) in certain areas. There aren’t a lot of weak spots. But this is one of them from last season.
Maybe Gibson is part of the answer.