2024 NFL Draft

Michael Clay breaks down return capabilities of Eagles draft picks

Eagles special teams coordinator Michael Clay breaks down the Eagles' draft picks as return options.

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The Eagles had one of the better punt returners in the league last year and Britain Covey is returning for his third NFL season.

But there’s a brand new kickoff rule and the Eagles drafted three players last month with extensive return experience at the collegiate level.

So while Eagles special teams coordinator Michael Clay spoke glowingly of Covey, there might still be some opportunity in the return game for the 2024 Eagles.

“Having all of these possible punt returners allows them to get some film, get some feel, because these guys having come from college, it's a different type of animal out there,” Clay said. “So having them get the most reps as possible.”

The Eagles didn’t draft Cooper DeJean (second round), Will Shipley (fourth) or Ainias Smith (fifth) just because of their return ability. But it is an added bonus.

“I think they all excel in different phases,” said Clay, who broke them all down last week.

Cooper DeJean

College stats: 31 punt returns, 406 yards (13.1), 1 touchdown; 1 kick return, 20 yards

“Cooper, he's just a heck of an athlete,” Clay said. “You guys have seen his basketball highlight tape surface around. This guy is a really good football player. Hard to find good football players in general. He's a smooth runner. Able to track the ball as a punt returner. You saw he has the ability to take it all the way.”

DeJean was credited with one return touchdown and had one called back for an extremely questionable call. This insane return was called back against Minnesota because the refs ruled that he called for a fair catch.

Even though it didn’t count, this return showed off his ability as a returner. And when asked if DeJean called for a fair catch, Clay decided to punt himself.

“You can ask him that,” Clay said with a smile. “I've got nothing for you.”

Will Shipley

College stats: 39 kick returns, 904 yards (26.6)

“Then with Will,” Clay said. “Will, you see from a running back perspective then to a kickoff returner's perspective, he's downhill. He's one cut. He's still got enough wiggle to make you miss. That was evident in the rookie minicamp, just seeing those guys kind of move around for the first time live in person outside of the film.”

Shipley returned some kicks all three years at Clemson and had his highest yards-per-return average in 2023.

Ainias Smith

College stats: 82 punt returns, 836 yards (10.2), 2 touchdowns; 20 kick returns, 360 yards (14.7)

“Ainias, he's splashy, explosive,” Clay said. “When he gets the ball in his hands, it's really dynamic in terms of that.”

Here’s a look at his two college punt return touchdowns:

Smith had his best year as a returner in 2023, averaging 14.3 yards per return, which ranked 8th in the nation.

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