McMullen: Eagles Need a Consistent Presence Outside the Numbers
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - Gunter Brewer once had a hand in the development of Randy Moss so the Eagles wide receivers coach knows what a deep threat looks like.
And Brewer did his best to fend off questions about the lack of a similar presence in the Philadelphia offense right now.
It's not for a lack of planning because the roster was built with the idea that Mike Wallace would stretch the field and open up space underneath for a host of solid receivers like Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and Zach Ertz. And if the 32-year-old Wallace didn't work out or showed signs of slipping, Mack Hollins was the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option.
Turns out Wallace never even got to play with Carson Wentz after suffering a fractured fibula in Week 2 against Tampa Bay while Wentz was in his last week of rehab from ACL surgery. Meanwhile, Hollins was already on injured reserve with a groin problem.
All of a sudden Torrey Smith was a player the Eagles have missed desperately, a statement that has to be the frontrunner for the-thing-you-did-not-expect-to-hear category for Philadelphia's 2018 NFL season.
Smith wasn't very good with the Eagles, just like in San Francisco before he got here and in Carolina now after being traded for the now-forgotten Daryl Worley.
Of the 114 receivers who have played enough to be graded by ProFootballFocus.com this season, Smith is at No. 107 and that's after a good week when he caught a touchdown pass and a two-point conversion from Cam Newton during the Panthers loss to Washington.
Smith, though, could always run and had to be accounted for last season when the occasional drop was often mitigated by a pass-interference penalty or a big play.
Smith's real impact, though, was presence, not production and Philadelphia currently does not have a similar presence in its offense right now.
"That's an element that we're searching for a little bit, offensive coordinator Mike Groh admitted Monday.
Brewer trumpeted a committee approach that has produced the occasional explosive play, notably from Jordan Matthews in Tennessee and Shelton Gibson against Minnesota.
"You always love to have a guy who can take the lid off no matter when it is," Brewer conceded on Monday. "We've had some guys do that by committee. You've seen guys step in that role Nelly [Nelson Agholor] has, everybody has. Gibson has, Jordan has. So whoever has been that person has done that job whether it's been from that spot (X) or somewhere else on the field."
The lack of a consistent vertical threat and the space constrictions underneath for the volume receivers is the kind of intangible thing tough to put a number on, however.
When the Eagles do get a big play down the field these days, though, it generally comes from fooling the opposing defense or a blown coverage, not from an athlete popping the top.
"We've got to connect a little bit more and we've had some opportunities and we will get some more opportunities to, so coverage kind of dictates that sometimes and matchups and all those things but I think the whole group has the ability to put themselves in that case," Brewer said.
The one guy on the roster who has top-tier NFL long speed is Gibson, a deep threat from West Virginia who arrived in Philadelphia last year as a very raw route runner, something that has made the coaching staff hesitant to put Gibson on the field consistently.
After Gibson's big 48-yard reception against the Vikings in Week 5, he was on the field for only four offensive snaps against the New York Giants.
"I think Shelton is doing a lot of good things and a lot of things better each and every week," Groh said. "He's a guy that we're working into the mix, and he's one of those guys that does have the vertical speed that can take the top off of a defense, so we're trying to utilize him in those roles."
Not hard enough.
As Smith proved last season, it's not necessarily about the production, it's the presence and right now Gibson is the only option offering consistent pause from a defensive standpoint when it comes to a vertical threat.
"I mean, that’s my thing (going deep)," Gibson said. "Just go out there and do me and do what the coaches want me to do and do my best.”
The Eagles, though, seem intent on keeping the status quo while waiting for either Hollins or Wallace to return from IR.
"I think the guys that we have have done a tremendous job," Brewer assessed. "Carson is getting more and more comfortable with the guys we have now. Now that we have a continuity with the same group of people. That's part of it, everybody finds their niche and those plays come. ... We got guys that can get there. We just have to get the opportunity and draw the right coverage and make a play."
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen