Will Eagles use DeVonta Smith as a punt returner again?

Will Eagles use DeVonta Smith as a punt returner again? originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Before DeVonta Smith finished with career highs in catches and yards and well before the Eagles took control over the Commanders on Sunday, the Eagles were looking for a spark.

So they turned to Smith.

With Washington backed up at their own 10-yard line and set to punt at the 8:31 mark of the first quarter in a scoreless game, the Eagles sent Smith out to return his first NFL return.

“We’ve been talking about that,” head coach Nick Sirianni said. “How many different times can we get the football in DeVonta’s hands? He's really sure-handed back there. He was really good at returning punts at Alabama the times that he did do it.

“We have faith in him based off of our practice reps that he can go back there and do it. We wanted a little spark. We threw him back there.”

After a booming punt off the left foot of Washington’s Tress Way that traveled 58 yards in the air, Smith cleanly fielded the ball and picked up a solid return of 12 yards.

All summer, Smith was part of the punt return rotation but Sunday was his first return in an NFL game. At Alabama, he returned 11 punts for 237 yards (21.5) with one touchdown all during his Heisman Trophy season in 2020.

“We always have these conversations,” special teams coordinator Michael Clay said. “We have these conversations before the season started because you obviously want to get your best players touches, the best players the ball right there. It all comes down to situational type things.

“What's the weather like, who we're facing, anything like that. It's just one of those things where we've had deep conversations just in terms of, ‘Hey, how do we get our best players on the field and the ball in their hands?’”

It’s very clear that Smith will never be the Eagles’ regular return man; he’s too valuable to their offense and they can’t foolishly risk injury.

But it seems like the Eagles will be willing to turn to him in some high leverage situations with chances for big returns. Think about how the Eagles tried to use DeSean Jackson late in his Eagles career.

“Once again, you balance everything in the game,” Clay said. “It was early on in the game. Just to get him going right there, you have that one. Then we didn't need to see him anywhere else. You saw what he did offense-wise.

“Again, it's a balance. I wouldn’t say if we're going to be up three scores or something like that, ‘Hey, let's throw DeVonta in there’. It has to be a situation when we’re going to throw him in there or just to get something going.”

After Smith’s 12-yard return to get the ball to their own 44-yard line, the Eagles’ offense sputtered again, going three-and-out. But eventually, the offense got going in the 24-8 win. And Smith caught eight passes for 169 yards and a touchdown.

Aside from that one play, punt return duties in this game fell on 25-year-old rookie Britain Covey for the third consecutive week. Covey returned 5 punts for 34 yards (6.8) with 2 fair catches and a muff in backed up territory that was luckily recovered.

Covey was a dynamic return man at Utah but has yet to break free at the NFL level. And after being elevated three times from the practice squad, the Eagles will have to sign Covey to the 53-man roster if they want that role to continue.

But it seems like the Eagles will be content to use their open roster spot on him.

“I think Britain’s done a really good job,” Clay said. “I think Britain, first three weeks in the NFL against some real dudes, you actually feel the real speed of some guys. This isn’t the third or the second pre-season game or in practice. …

“But he's done a good job in terms of protecting the ball. Once again, I know he muffed that ball right there, we can't have any situation where the ball is on the ground. Besides that, he's putting his foot on the ground, getting yards right there. Hopefully, he keeps keeping his momentum, we're blocking better for him and one of those 12 yards, springs for something bigger.”

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