Penn State Football

Why PSU WR DeAndre Thompkins could be the Philadelphia Eagles’ answer at punt returner

Sanders, Thompkins field punts at Eagles minicamp

Former Penn State running back Miles Sanders and wideout DeAndre Thompkins handled punts during Friday’s rookie minicamp.
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Former Penn State running back Miles Sanders and wideout DeAndre Thompkins handled punts during Friday’s rookie minicamp.

DeAndre Thompkins was asked on Friday by a cluster of Eagles reporters to pitch himself, to describe his game to his new fanbase. The former Penn State wide receiver stood by his locker at the NovaCare Complex, smiled and said: “Speed. Route technician. Return man.”

The first two might help Thompkins make Philadelphia’s practice squad. But the third could earn the undrafted free agent a spot on the 53-man roster come September.

Thompkins, despite his senior year struggles at Penn State, has a chance to secure the Eagles’ starting punt returner role in 2019.

How? Well, largely because the job is vacant. Darren Sproles — the Eagles’ shifty 36-year-old tailback who led the NFL in punt return yards in 2014 and 2015 — might not return next season. Nelson Agholor, who still could be traded, has returned one regular-season punt in 60 games played. And Corey Clement had six returns for 18 yards and two fumbles in 2018.

But maybe most convincing of all: As a team, Philadelphia averaged 6.3 yards per punt return last season, ranking 27th in the league.

Meanwhile, Thompkins averaged 10.2 yards per return over the course of his career at Penn State. He housed a pair of punts, returning one in 2017 for a 61-yard touchdown against Akron and another in 2018 for a 39-yard score at Pitt. Thompkins’ 13.3 yards per punt average in 2017 ranked tops in the Big Ten and fifth in the country and earned him All-Big Ten honors.

The obvious reason for Thompkins’ return success was the first attribute he mentioned to reporters: His speed. The former four-star recruit clocked a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at Penn State’s Pro Day, and he was partially disappointed with that. Thompkins said in training he had been running in the upper 4.2s — which would have been the best time among wideouts at the NFL Combine.

But Thompkins didn’t get the chance to run in Indianapolis. He wasn’t invited. And, somewhat unsurprisingly, he didn’t hear his name called at the NFL draft, either.

“That’s going to drive me for my whole career,” Thompkins told the CDT. “I have a lot to prove.”

That’s especially true after a rough final season in State College.

Thompkins lost his starting receiver job at various points last year due to ongoing drop issues. While still providing senior leadership to KJ Hamler, Mac Hippenhammer and more, the pass-catcher’s production dipped due to the lack of playing time and Penn State’s inability to push the ball downfield. Thompkins ended up with 25 catches in 2018, two and three fewer than 2016 and 2017, respectively. But his yardage totals — 440 in 2016, 443 in 2017 and 329 in 2018 — help tell the story of a frustrating final campaign.

When asked if those drop concerns from last year are behind him, Thompkins simply said: “Keywords: Last year,” and moved on.

And perhaps he has. Thompkins mishandled a few punts in the early stages of rookie minicamp Friday, but was otherwise reliable securing balls off the JUGs machine. In order to make the roster, Thompkins will need to not only eliminate any drop issues, but also do something with the ball when given the opportunity.

With rookie minicamp over, the next chance to do that is in offseason team activities (OTAs), which begin May 21. After that, training camp and preseason games, the first of which is on August 8 against the Titans.

Thompkins’ roster fate should be clearer by that point. Until then, the former Nittany Lion will continue to prepare for the opportunities that lie ahead.

“Whether it’s punt return or special teams, running down on kickoffs or backup receiver, whatever it is, I have a role on this team,” Thompkins said. “And I’m willing to do whatever it takes, sacrifice and work hard to earn that spot.”