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December 30, 2023

Eagles' Britain Covey is the best punt returner in the NFL this season

The Eagles special teams unit is quietly one of the best in the game.

On Christmas against the Giants, Eagles punt returner Britain Covey had an electric 54-yard punt return that set up a short, 2-play, 13-yard opening drive touchdown for the offense. By my count, Covey made five Giants defenders miss, before scooting across the field, outracing the punter to the sideline, and throwing on the brakes while three more Giants defenders flew by, before he was finally corralled inside the 15.

That was Covey's best return so far of what has been a standout season for the second-year pro. Covey now leads the NFC in punt return average, and he is second in the NFL (min. 15 punt returns):

Player Returns Yards Avg FC 
Derius Davis, Chargers 23 373 16.2 24 
Britain Covey, Eagles 28 409 14.6 15 
Rashid Shaheed, Saints 21 294 14.0 22 
Devin Duvernay, Ravens 23 290 12.6 20 
Charlie Jones, Bengals 19 220 11.6 9 
DeeJay Dallas, Seahawks 24 250 10.4 15 
DeAndre Carter, Raiders 22 225 10.2 16 
Braxton Berrios, Dolphins 23 235 10.2 23 
Xavier Gipson, Jets 27 271 10.0 29 
Kalif Raymond, Lions 22 207 9.4 22 

As you can see, Covey is averaging 14.6 yards per return, which is outstanding. It's an average that would have led the NFL in four of the last five seasons (min. 15 returns). But it's even better than you'd think. You might also notice that Covey has only called 15 fair catches this season, which represents under 35 percent of his punt return opportunities, while five returners on the list above have called fair catches on 50 percent or more of their return opportunities.

Covey is willing to return punts even if he is likely to only get a few yards, while other returners around the league would otherwise simply call a fair catch to preserve their lofty return averages. Each week, Covey watches every punt from around the league, and he sees returners calling for fair catches when they shouldn't.

"The best comparison I have is in the NBA, when at the end of the first quarter a guy doesn't take a three-quarter court shot because it will ruin his three point shooting average," Covey said. "I see that a lot with players, especially players who have average incentives in their contracts. For a lot of them, I think it's like if they average over 9 yards or over 9.5 yards per return they get a bonus, over 10 yards they get a bigger bonus... I see guys all the time who will call a fair catch that have those incentives, or sometimes even if they don't. I've always felt like that's just thinking too much about yourself and not enough about the team."

Taking the same sample size of the 10 returners above and instead calculating their return averages by including their fair catches, here's what their averages look like:

Player Punts fielded (Ret + FC) Yards Avg 
Britain Covey, Eagles 43 409 9.5 
Derius Davis, Chargers 47 373 7.9 
Charlie Jones, Bengals 28 220 7.9 
Rashid Shaheed, Saints 43 294 6.8 
Devin Duvernay, Ravens 43 290 6.7 
DeeJay Dallas, Seahawks 39 250 6.4 
DeAndre Carter, Raiders 38 225 5.9 
Braxton Berrios, Dolphins 46 235 5.1 
Xavier Gipson, Jets 56 271 4.8 
Kalif Raymond, Lions 44 207 4.7 

"You'll see a couple of plays this year where I haven't called a fair catch and I've gotten lit up right away, but 2 yards is better than 0," Covey said.

Return average preservation extends beyond just fair catches. NFL returners will also often allow shorter punts that bounce to simply roll down the field rather than picking them up.

Covey will field those if he thinks he can save the team yardage. One such example was against the Giants, when he aggressively fielded a Shankopotamus punt by Jamie Gillan and returned it, shown here: 

To begin, that was a very savvy play.

"The first objective is get your guy out of the way," Covey said, "so I yell, but I don't do this (Covey waved his hands in a "no" or "get away" fashion here), because they'll count that as a fair catch (hello, Iowa). Based off the trajectory, I knew that's not exactly where he was trying to hit it, so it was like, 'OK, I might have a chance still.' So I pointed rather than waived off [the jammer, Kelee Ringo], so he got out of the way, and then once it hit a good, high hop, I though I could save us 15 yards there."

Most returners are letting that punt go, and it probably rolls for another 10-15 yards before it's downed, as Covey noted. Instead, Covey got a 12-yard return, which actually hurt his average (lol), but the play resulted in a 6-yard net punt instead of, saaayyy, a 30-yard net punt.

"I see guys all the time not pick those up, or shy away from those, either because they're nervous or they don't want to ruin their average," Covey said. "It always bugs me, and that's why I think attacking those almost as if it's an onsides kick, and saying 'Yeah I might only get three yards on this return but I'm going to save us 15 yards,' so in a sense that's an 18-yard return."

Covey's rookie season in 2022 got off to a bad start, as he had two fumbles and averaged 6.8 yards per punt return in the Eagles' first 10 games. However, the Eagles stuck with him and over the last 10 games (including the playoffs) he played well, averaging 13.3 yards per return with no fumbles.

 Britain CoveyPunt returns Yards YPR Fumbles 
First 10 games 19 130 6.8 2 
 Last 10 games 16 213 13.3 0 

He even had a good game in the Super Bowl, when he returned two punts for 35 yards, including a 27-yard return.

The Eagles made a big mistake at the conclusion of training camp when they waived him at 53-man cutdowns, but were somehow bailed out when the league's 31 other teams didn't recognize Covey's impressive second half of the 2022 season and failed to claim him off of waivers.

The perception by some Eagles fans about Covey was that he often ran directly into oncoming tacklers as a rookie, which led to him taking some huge hits. But according to Covey, there was a reason why he seemed to get lit up more than most.

"I think a lot of it has to do with, the previous returners before I got here were a lot of more sideline returners, so I don't think our unit was as used to blocking for someone who prioritizes getting north and south," he said. "It was always funny to me that at times it seemed like I was running straight into people. The reality is that I'm just trying to get north and south. That's what the best returners do. But it's a different blocking scheme. You have to stay on inside hip of the defender rather than the outside, and I think it took a little bit of time for me and my unit to adjust to that style.

"At times I'm sure it just looked like I was running into guys but I'm really not doing anything that much different this year. I think it's just that we've adjusted to that style. Again I've always felt that the best returners get north and south. I see returners every week take the ball and they can easily get 12 yards on and they instead get five because they try to make something happen around the edge. I think that's the easy route. And so I prioritize hitting the hole vertically and then once I feel guys on the opposing team suck in (to the middle of the field) then that's when I break it to the edge."

Even when taking big hits, the 173-pound Covey always seemed to bounce right back up.

"My goal is to get up before the player who tackled me," he said. "I think that once the guys who are blocking for you see you doing that they respect it. They respect that you're able to take big hits, and that you're willing, and they want to block harder for you."

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