Eagles Training Camp Preview: The Receivers
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - The Eagles are rightfully excited about the talent they've amassed at the receiver position and while the players are exceptional, the fit may be what's really generating the buzz.
The redundancy of Golden Tate and Nelson Agholor, which pushed the latter outside the numbers far too often after Tate was acquired at the trade deadline last season, has been replaced by a better balance this time around.
Tate went up the Jersey Turnpike in free agency and Howie Roseman pulled the trigger to bring back DeSean Jackson, one of the best deep threats in the history of the NFL.
Philadelphia has struggled in its effort to replace what the now 32-year-old Jackson brought to the offense. The competency of Torrey Smith in that role was supposed to be upgraded by Mike Wallace last season but a broken fibula in Week 2 derailed those plans.
Originally a second-round pick by the Eagles in 2008, the 5-foot-10 Jackson, quickly turned into one of the league's top big-play threats, a dominant speed receiver and excellent punt returner who earned three Pro Bowl nods and an All-Pro berth after the 2009 season.
Ultimately things turned sour with Chip Kelly after Jackson's best statistical season, an 82-catch, 1,332-yard campaign in 2013. Jackson remained arguably the top deep threat in football through three years in Washington and two in Tampa Bay as the Eagles have struggled to replace the presence that opens up things underneath for others.
Even post-30 Jackson led the NFL by averaging 18.9 yards per reception last season and he's been a 1,000-yard receiver five times in his career. He finished with just 41 receptions last season, however, while missing four games.
Philadelphia gave up a 2019 sixth-round pick in order to secure Jackson before he hit the open market. The Eagles also got a 2020 seventh-round selection in the deal.
Jackson had one year left on his deal at a $10 million cap number but the Eagles agreed on a three-year extension for $27M which lowers that number and gives Jackson $13M in guarantees.
On paper the move is a perfect fit but complicate things as far as traffic and workload.
The game plan figures to continue to feature Nos. 86 and 17 first -- Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery -- but Jackson has had a history of wanting the football and Agholor is set to play under his fifth-year option, which means he will need numbers to generate the kind of deal he wants in 2020.
SPENDING IN THE SLOT
Rumors have hounded Agholor throughout the offseason but he seems to be comfortable entering a contract year as part of what figures to be a loaded receiving corps.
Most assumed that if the Eagles moved forward with Agholor in the 2019 season it would be with a contract extension to lower the exorbitant $9.4 million salary he's set to make on the final year of his rookie deal as a 2015 first-round pick.
The additions of Jackson and second-round pick J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, along with running backs Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders, give Doug Pederson an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions, a group which also includes Jeffery outside the numbers, Agholor himself, and two top-tier tight ends in Ertz and Dallas Goedert.
In theory that's a nice problem to have but one that also could most certainly become a problem at some point.
"Like you said, there is one ball. I think they understand that," offensive coordinator Mike Groh said. "Maybe it's not unique, but one of the things that makes it a lot of fun to come to work every day is really all these guys want to do is win. They understand that by having a lot of good players it makes you hard to defend and that they might have to share the football."
When everyone is around the roles seem clear with Jeffery serving as the WR1 and Jackson the field-stretcher opening up the intermediate zones for Ertz, Agholor and Goedert. In the backfield, Howard will be the thunder to rookie Miles Sanders' lightning.
For Agholor numbers might be more important than the others with his second professional deal pending but the Southern Cal product certainly isn't something that implication.
“I know what kind of player I am,” he told reporters.
And the trade rumors that Agholor has certainly heard about from his camp throughout free agency and the draft?
"I didn’t really worry about it," Agholor said. "At the end of the day, I love this place. We have unfinished business."
Of the 13 receivers on the Eagles offseason roster, Jackson is the elder statesman and Jeffery has also been in the NFL longer than Agholor but as far as being at the NovaCare Complex only Agholor has been there for five consecutive springs and he's morphed from uncertain young player to confident veteran.
"What am I worried about? Am I worried that I’m going to have a job in this league? Agholor asked rhetorically. "Not at all. I want to be an Eagle and I’m here. At the end of the day, that’s for them to control and for me to say, ‘hey, I’m ready to play football for the Eagles.’ I’m ready to play football in general."
One of the issues for Agholor and every receiver that has been here has been the revolving door at the position coach with Carson Walch being the latest after the Eagles made Gunter Brewer a one-and-done guy. Previous to Brewer, Groh was elevated to OC after spending just a year as the successor to Greg Lewis.
After starting his career with two disappointing seasons through that constant change Agholor is coming off two successful, if not spectacular seasons, catching 62 balls for 768 yards and 8 touchdowns during the Super Bowl LII season and following that up with 64-736-4 in 2018.
With more options to work with those numbers may not spike for Agholor but that "unfinished business" may be taken care of.
“I’m going to bust my butt, man,” Agholor said about working in a crowded skill-position group. “Work hard, grind. At the end of the day, what’s meant for you will be for you.”
Judging by spring work Arcega-Whiteside is everything the Eagles thought he was, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound monster of a wideout who has a basketball background and excels in the red zone with contested catches.
Arcega-Whiteside is no one-trick pony, however, and has the athleticism to excel as a well-rounded receiver in Philadelphia after the Eagles selected the former Stanford star with the No. 57 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
"We heard from a bunch of people after we picked J.J. like we were very surprised J.J. fell," Roseman said. "Sometimes these West Coast guys who play late, they get a little underrated because people aren't watching those late games. This guy's a baller. He’s got a very good skill-set and I think when our fans get to know him they are going to be really proud. He symbolizes Eagle mentality, Eagle football."
After Philadelphia became his new football home, Arcega-Whiteside quickly got congratulatory texts from his new quarterback, Carson Wentz, and his fellow Stanford family member, Ertz, who knows Arcega-Whiteside from offseason workouts back in Palo Alto. A third Philadelphia player, Jeffery, is the NFL player Arcega-Whiteside has patterned his game after.
"I grew up watching him," Arcega-Whiteside said when discussing Jeffery, a fellow South Carolina native.
"He competes for the ball," Arcega-Whiteside said. "He's a great competitor out there on the field. I know that's kind of cliche even though I'm going to be on his team, but he's a great guy to look after."
In fact, Jeffery is almost the template that Arcega-Whiteside strives to be at the NFL level, a player who understands how to use his size to dominate. Basketball is the connection to that as both love and embrace the game and have transitioned some of the skills that help you on the hardwood to the gridiron.
Both of Arcega-Whiteside's parents played professional basketball overseas and two of his uncles played for Spain in the Olympics. His knowledge of the game has already resulted in second-team All-Pac-12 honors after hauling in 63 receptions for 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns last season at Stanford.
"It helps a lot. Just having that basketball background helps you instinctively to be able to position yourself and move your body to where you can high-point the ball and outjump the DB," Arcega-Whiteside explained. "But a lot of people think that a jump ball is all jumping, but it’s all about positioning. Because of my basketball background that has helped me a lot."
It's also stereotyped him to some who picture the back-shoulders and fades but don't see a well-rounded player.
"I love to have that tag with me, as a contested-catches and jump-ball receiver, but at the same time, I’m not limited to that," Arcega-Whiteside said. "Any route that you give me, I’m going to run and I’m going to do my best to get open. I feel like this year, my coach was kind of like, ‘Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ and I said the same thing: “Yeah I agree. I’d rather have the jump ball in the end zone, but what receiver doesn’t?’ But at the same time, that is a skill that I have and that I’ve learned, but it’s not a skill that I am limited to."
Roseman specifically mentioned Arcega-Whiteside's ability to beat press coverage.
"All it is is doing a crossover and when a guy is kind of pressed up on you, you have to give him a shake to get him off his position and attacking him at the same time," he said. "Basketball with all of that helps, but at the same time you have to make it translate to football."
Marken Michel was so happy north of the border in Calgary he had to contemplate on whether being the big fish in the small pond was the way to go.
Competition fuels pro athletes, however, and that mentality had the older brother of Patriots star running back Sony Michel in Philadelphia this spring opening the eyes of the Eagles coaching staff as both a slot receiver and punt returner.
At 25 Michel is again trying to carve out his own NFL career. He had a cup of coffee in Minnesota as an undrafted free agent out of UMass back in 2016 before making his way to Canada and earning a second chance by being a difference maker with the Stampeders, first as the CFL’s West Division Rookie of the Year and then as a Grey Cup champion.
Last season a broken scapula limited Michel to 11 games with the Stampeders and he was unable to play in Calgary's championship win but he again showed off significant playmaking skills -- catching 31 passes for 435 yards and five touchdowns -- before the injury.
“It was my love for the game,” Michel answered when asked about the move to the CFL. “I had the mindset to just keep playing, not to be stagnant, not to stand still, and it was a great opportunity for me up there."
There are differences in the CFL game. An extra man is on the field for each side, the playing surface itself is wider and one receiver can get an Arena League-like running start before the ball is snapped, but the playing time and an ability to hone one's craft when the real bullets are flying is valuable in any league, according to Walch.
“It doesn’t matter what league you are in, there are certain standards to how you get open and the techniques you coach at the beginning of a route, the top of the route and how you make a contested play or catch,” the first-year receivers coach explained. “I think there’s a lot of carryover [to technique] no matter what league you’re in.”
Michel agreed with that assessment.
“When you run your route and the ball is in the air, you catch the ball and you score,” he smiled. “That’s all you’re thinking about. You’re not thinking about what league you’re in, you’re not thinking about the size of the field, you’re not thinking about different opponents, you’re just thinking about when the ball is in the air, catch it.”
When the Eagles came calling Michel seriously weighed staying in Calgary because he enjoyed it so much. He didn't even tell his family and friends about the contract offer. They found out the same way most people did, when they checked the transaction wire.
"God opened the door,” Michel said of his decision, “let me see what I can do with this.”
What Michel has done to date is open those eyes, as both an explosive slot receiver and potential complementary punt returner to Jackson, even earning some first-team reps at minicamp when Agholor was down with a lower-body injury.
Typically bottom of the roster receivers don't get a ton of time with the starting quarterback but Michel showed off enough to get plenty of opportunities with Wentz and the two got familiar, connecting on several throws including some big plays down the field.
The signature moment for the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Michel came at minicamp when he hauled in what would have been a 90-plus yard touchdown when the offense was backed up, as he found himself leaking out to the left and wide open on the back side of the formation before splitting the defense, showing off some really impressive speed.
"Carson just throws a damn good ball,” Michel gushed. “... As a receiver you can put a blindfold on, put your hands up and the ball’s probably going to hit you in the hands. He’s a great quarterback.”
The competitions for Michel and the other unproven receivers remains steep, however. The Eagles are loaded at the position with a starting lineup that features proven players like Jeffery, Jackson and Agholor, as well as Arcega-Whiteside, Mack Hollins, Shelton Gibson, Braxton Miller, who was once a third-round pick in Houston, and two players who have also taken advantage of their own minor-league experience with the AAF, Greg Ward and Charles Johnson.
As for Michel, he's already accomplished the first step, getting noticed by the most important eyes at the NovaCare Complex.
"[A] young explosive player that I really didn't know a whole lot about him and started getting him in the mix and working him and both those two guys [Michel and Greg Ward] in the slot," Pederson said when asked about Michel by 973espn.com "... they've both flashed and done a really good job. It's part of that competition and depth we talk about around here a lot. It's going to be an interesting camp with some of those decisions we have to make."
X DeSean Jackson - One of the best deep threats in the history of the NFL. At 32 seems as fast as ever.
Z Alshon Jeffery - Uncharacteristic drop against Saints in playoffs will not affect the confident Jeffery. Huge catching radius and natural skills make him one of the toughest matchups in football.
Slot Nelson Agholor - Moving back to where he's most comfortable and effective on a contract year.
WR4 J.J. Arcega-Whiteside - Similar skill set to Jeffery -- very long and physical with excellent balls skills. If anything he's faster and more athletic than Jeffery.
ON THE BUBBLE
WR5 Mack Hollins - Was finally getting back into doing some individual work at the end of the spring after the strange core muscle injury that cost him all of 2018. Has one more benefit-of-the-doubt card in the deck but a poor camp could change that.
WR6 Shelton Gibson - Just doesn't catch the football consistently enough. His bigger contribution is on special teams as a gunner.
WR7 Charles Johnson - One of the best receivers in the AAF but back-of-the-roster receivers need to help on special teams and that's not Johnson's strength.
WR8 Braxton Miller - A nondescript spring knocked Miller down a peg or two.
Slot2 Greg Ward - A short stint with San Antonio in the AAF gave him more confidence.
PRACTICE SQUAD CEILING
Slot3 Marken Michel - The older brother of Pats star Sony Michel, Marken opened up some eyes with a strong spring.
Slot4 DeAndre Thompkins - Undrafted rookie from Penn State is likely earmarked from the practice squad but could push for the punt return job with no Darren Sproles.
WR9 Carlton Agudosi - Rangy 6-foot-6 guy who showed off by high-pointing the football a few times in the spring. Does he have the quickness to run NFL-level routes?
WR10 Devin Ross - Late spring pickup with some slot skills.
POSITION GRADE: 8.5 [The Eagles are incredibly deep here with pieces that fit together perfectly. The question for Pederson and Groh is can they keep everyone happy?)
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen