August 24, 2015
When asked what specifically makes Kenjon Barner such a dangerous punt returner, Chip Kelly figured it’s mostly the same qualities that allowed the 26-year-old back to rush for 3,623 yards under his watchful eye at the University of Oregon: vision and an ability to make people miss.
Trying to make the 53-man roster of a regime that absolutely craves versatility, Barner agrees with his college coach’s assessment.
“Once you have that ball in your hand, you become a running back or receiver in the open field,” Barner said. “You have to be able to see things, you have to be able to see how blocks are set up, and you have to know the blocking scheme in order to have success running the return.”
“The one thing with Kenjon is he’s a lot like Darren [Sproles] in that he’s always hitting it and going downhill,” Kelly said. “We’re always going to get positive yardage out of him whether it be a five-yard gain, ten-yard gain, or he can break one for a touchdown."
Saying that Barner has experienced success in the return game so far in the preseason is an understatement. In each of the Eagles’ blowout wins, he ran back a punt for a touchdown. First, Barner spun out of a few tackles and ran 92 yards down the sideline against the Indianapolis Colts. For an encore, he showed a strong initial burst and great cutback ability that the Baltimore Ravens (and their head coach that spent quite a few years coordinating special teams) just couldn’t stop.
The results have obviously been there, but what Kelly appreciates most is Barner’s approach. The Eagles’ special teams played a major part in their 10 victories last season, and the head coach sees similarities between the preseason and regular season punt returners.
“The one thing with Kenjon is he’s a lot like Darren [Sproles] in that he’s always hitting it and going downhill,” Kelly said. “We’re always going to get positive yardage out of him whether it be a five-yard gain, ten-yard gain, or he can break one for a touchdown. He’s not a dance guy back there that’s going to try to figure out how to hit a home run but then end up losing yards. He’s always advancing the football and that’s what we want our returners to do.”
One could argue that Kelly views returning the same way he does running the ball on offense. This offseason, the super shifty LeSean McCoy was replaced by downhill, one-cut runners in DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews. Last season, the more direct Sproles took over for DeSean Jackson and Damaris Johnson returning punts.
Murray, Mathews, and Sproles are considered locks to make the team, so it’s a crowded backfield for players like Barner and Raheem Mostert (who has also impressed) to crack. After the aformentioned strong showing in the first couple of games, our Eagles writer has placed him on the projected 53-man roster.
Kelly’s affinity for bringing in his former college players has been both mocked and criticized, but Barner might be an example of #DuckBias gone right. After a few weeks of camp, the former Oregon standout has certainly increased his chances of making a roster with his versatility, whether here or somewhere else.
“This is no different than a regular job,” Barner said. “You want to add value to yourself. What do you bring to the table that somebody else doesn’t bring? So my job is to add as much value to myself as much as humanly possible.“
Barner was prominently involved in Oregon’s return game as a redshirt freshman in 2009, but he saw his workload decrease as an upperclassman once he started to get more carries on offense. Now that he isn’t the primary running back or even returner in the NFL, Barner is trying to prove he can provide value as a backup in multiple spots. Through two preseason games, he has also rushed for 44 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.
“We’re going to keep the 53 best football players,” Kelly said, concluding his press conference on Monday afternoon.
After watching the Eagles play a few games, that is likely good news for Barner.
Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann