DeAndre Thompkins was asked Friday by a cluster of Philadelphia Eagles reporters to pitch himself, to describe his game to his new fan base. The former Penn State wide receiver stood by his locker at 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 be the Eagles’ punt returner 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 ’15, might not return next season. Nelson Agholor, who still could be traded, has returned one regular-season punt in 60 games played. 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, 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 in 2017 ranked tops in the Big Ten and fifth in the country and helped 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 partially was 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 Centre Daily Times. “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 because of ongoing drop issues. While providing senior leadership to KJ Hamler, Mac Hippenhammer and more, the pass-catcher’s production dipped because of 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 ’16 and ’17, respectively. But his yardage totals — 440 in 2016, 443 in ’17 and 329 in ’18 — help tell the story of a frustrating final campaign.
When asked if those drop concerns from last year are behind him, Thompkins simply said, “Key words: Last year,” and moved on.
And perhaps he has. Thompkins mishandled a few punts in the early stages of rookie minicamp Friday but was reliable securing balls off the JUGs machine. In order to make the roster, Thompkins not only needs 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 OTAs, which begin May 21. After that comes training camp and preseason games, the first of which is Aug. 8 against the Tennessee 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.”