Eagles Observations: Can Britain Covey energize Eagles' return game?

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In Roob's Observations: Can Britain Covey energize Eagles' return game? originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Can Britain Covey solve the Eagles’ long-standing return game issues? What happened to Miles Sanders’ receiving ability? And a former Eagle whose daughter is now an international track star.

We’re all over the map with this weekend’s Roob’s 10 Random Eagles Offseason Observations. Soon to lose the “offseason” tag!

1. You know Britain Covey is going to be one of the most scrutinized players at Eagles training camp. Everybody’s going to be watching the undrafted rookie from Utah. But what sort of chance does the 5-foot-8, 175-pound receiver and returner have? Covey had five return TDs at Utah — four punts and one kickoff — and that’s the area he’s got to shine if he’s going to make a run at a roster spot. He became a decent slot receiver late in his college career — he caught 52 passes for 514 yards last year — but the Eagles don’t need him to contribute on offense. They need firepower in the return game, something that was sorely missing last year. They ranked 28th in punt return average and 29th in kick returns, and they haven’t ranked in the top-10 in either category since 2016, when Darren Sproles was bringing back punts and Kenjon Barner, Josh Huff and Wendell Smallwood kicks. Covey averaged 15.0 yards per punt over the last two years, second-best in the BCS (behind Houston’s Marcus Jones), and his three TDs were tied with Jones for most in the country. He only returned 16 kicks the last couple of years, but his 29.6 average was sixth-highest in the BCS during that span. Covey doesn’t have world-class speed — he ran 4.50 at his pro day — but he’s explosive, he’s shifty, he’s elusive, and he’s surprisingly strong for his size and is going to fight for extra yards. He’s really small, and that’s going to make it tough for him, but if he shows he can rejuvenate the Eagles’ moribund return game, he’s going to make this roster.

2. Jalen Hurts Stat of the Week: Over the last five weeks of last season, Hurts had a higher passer rating than Tom Brady. Hurts was 101.3 and Brady 100.3.

3. Sanders’ precipitous decline as a receiver is a huge mystery to me. Sanders caught 50 passes for 509 yards and three TDs as a rookie but has dropped to 54-for-355 with no TDs the last two seasons combined. Sanders is one of only two running backs in NFL history with 500 receiving yards as a rookie and fewer than 400 the next two years combined. The other one was Mike Alstott in the late 1990s. Sanders ranked seventh among RBs in receiving as a rookie, but he ranks 40th since. How does that happen? Sanders was such a playmaker in the passing game in 2019. He had 16 catches of 10 yards or more as a rookie and just 11 the last two years combined. And he averaged 32 receiving yards per game as a rookie but just 15 the last two years. It’s weird. You don’t just lose your ability to catch the football, but Sanders just hasn’t looked the same when it comes to getting open, beating defenders on wheel routes and screens and securing the football when it’s thrown to him. Was his rookie year a fluke in terms of receiving? Maybe the injuries have somehow affected him more as a receiver than a runner? He just hasn’t looked comfortable in the passing game since 2019. Whatever the reason, it’s a problem for a young quarterback who needs to be able to throw to the backs when nobody is open down the field or the pocket breaks down. This all plays into Sanders’ value as he approaches the final year of his contract. Running backs who can catch are just a lot more valuable than those who can’t.

4. Terrell Owens had 20 touchdown catches as an Eagle. Only three Eagles receivers have had more over the last 25 years (DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jordan Matthews). T.O. only played 21 games as an Eagle.

5. What Dallas Goedert did last year is insane: He was targeted just 76 times but had 835 receiving yards. The NFL has been tracking targets since 1992, and during that 30-year period no other tight end has had over 800 yards on 76 or fewer targets. Antonio Gates had 782 yards on 65 targets for the Chargers in 2010, and that’s the closest anybody else has been. That’s remarkable production and efficiency by Goedert, who had the 17th-most targets among tight ends last year but the fifth-most yards. Everybody raved about Mark Andrews’ season, and 1,361 yards is ridiculous for a tight end. But he had 153 targets — more than twice Goedert. Only five WRs have had 835 yards on 76 or fewer targets in the last 30 years. Goedert had a historic season for a wide receiver, and he’s a tight end.

6. Remember Eagles linebacker Marc Woodard? He played in 48 games from 1994 through 1996, mainly on special teams, and he settled in South Jersey after he retired from football. Woodard’s daughter Jessica, who attended Cherokee High School in Marlton, was a shot put All-American at the University of Oklahoma and made her first U.S. national team last month. On Saturday, competing against the top women in the world, Woodard placed eighth in the shot at the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Ore. She’s only the eighth U.S. woman to place among the top eight at Worlds. Her 63-7 ¾ at the U.S. Championships last month ranks No. 14 in U.S. history.

7. Somebody called my WIP show with James Seltzer on Saturday complaining about how Jonathan Gannon never adjusted last year, and that’s why the Eagles always got blown out in the second half. But actually the opposite is true. Not counting the meaningless loss to the Cowboys on the last day of the season, they ranked 18th in the NFL in first-half points allowed (11.3) but sixth in second-half points allowed (9.6). I thought the Eagles’ defensive issues stemmed more from not being ready at the start of games than anything. They were third-worst in first-quarter points allowed (5.3 per game) but solid for the most part after halftime. With all the additions — Haason Reddick, James Bradberry, Jordan Davis, Nakobe Dean, Kyzir White — there’s no reason this can’t be an elite defense for 60 minutes instead of a decent one for 30 minutes.

8. Carson Wentz has had four seasons with at least 20 touchdowns and seven or fewer interceptions. In NFL history, only Aaron Rodgers has had more.

9. When we talk about Andy Reid’s remarkable initial Eagles coaching staff, which included eight future NFL head coaches as well as legendary Jim Johnson and ace offensive line coach Juan Castillo, we can’t forget Rod Dowhower, Reid’s initial offensive coordinator. Dowhower, an NFL coaching lifer who had coached Craig Morton, Neil Lomax and Mark Rypien, was in New York for the 1999 draft, and it was Dowhower who began working with Donovan McNabb on the Eagles’ playbook on the way to Philly just a few hours after he was drafted. Dowhower retired after the 2001 season, but his impact on McNabb and the role he had in McNabb’s rapid development from a raw rookie in 1999 to a Pro Bowler in 2000 to NFC Championship Game QB in 2001 was huge.

10. Seems crazy that the Eagles’ last training camp at Lehigh started 10 years ago this week. I miss Lehigh.