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Offseason outlook: Wide receivers

Note: This is the third part of a 10-part series offering an overview of the Eagles roster entering the offseason. Here were quarterbacks and running backs. Look for offensive line on Thursday and specialists and tight ends on Friday.

Offseason outlook: Wide receivers

Eagles wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Eagles wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Note: This is the third part of a 10-part series offering an overview of the Eagles roster entering the offseason. Here were quarterbacks and running backs. Look for offensive line on Thursday and specialists and tight ends on Friday.

ON THE ROSTER

Under contract: DeSean Jackson Jason Avant, Jeff Maehl, Damaris Johnson, Arrelious Benn, Brad Smith, Will Murphy, Ifeanyi Momah, Joe Anderson

Free agents: Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper

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Outlook: This is one of the major positions to watch this offseason. DeSean Jackson is coming off a career season (82 catches, 1,332 yards, nine touchdowns) and thrived in Chip Kelly’s offense. The team is unlikely to renogiate a deal that pays Jackson $10.25 million this season.

The Eagles were bullish on how Jeremy Maclin would fit in Kelly’s system before tearing his ACL early in training camp. Riley Cooper filled in and built a connection with Nick Foles. Cooper had 27 catches for 521 yards and six touchdowns in the final two months of the season. Both are unrestricted free agents. Their destinations will dictate what the Eagles do at this position.

Expect Maclin to be a priority. It’s hard to price him, though, and that’s what the team and player will try to determine. Before the season, I thought Mike Williams’ contract in Tampa Bay could serve as a template.

After missing all of 2013, I would not expect Maclin to get that type of deal. So the question is whether he takes a one-year “show-me” deal that allows him to cash in after a potentially strong season, or a long-term deal with less guaranteed money than he would have received if he were healthy, but more than he would get with a one-year deal.

Cooper is also difficult to peg. He had not been a starting receiver until this season. Kelly values Cooper, who is big and physical, a strong blocker, and is proven in the offense. But the Eagles must determine whether he’s replaceable. In other words, can they find someone in the draft – a loaded class, as I’ll address below – who could provide similar production at a much lower cost? Cooper could potentially earn at least $5 million per season on the open market, although this is more of a buyer’s market. Eric Decker, Hakeem Nicks, Julian Edelman, and Golden Tate are more proven receivers on the market than Cooper.

I’d be surprised if No. 3 wide receiver Jason Avant returns to the Eagles, at least at his current contract figure. Avant’s value goes beyond statistics, and he's a strong voice in the locker room and the type of presence that teams need. But he had his worst statistical season since 2008 and his production does not merit $3.25 million – especially if the Eagles pay Maclin and/or Cooper big money.

The rest of the receiving corps will all need to earn roster spots. Jeff Maehl was active all 16 games, has value on special teams this season, and played for Kelly at Oregon. But he’s not someone who should be guaranteed a roster spot entering camp.

Maybe the expectations were too high, but Damaris Johnson did not have the season expected in 2013. He finished with just two catches, was demoted from his return role, and never became a part of the offense. The Eagles will likely upgrade special teams this offseason, and Johnson will have competition to make the roster.

Brad Smith is an intriguing player. Smith, 30, signed a two-year deal last season and was instantly added to the offense. The Eagles like his size and versatility. He returned kicks, and played different roles in the offense. It came while Smith had a crash course of the offense. A full offseason will benefit him.

Arrelious Benn is a former second-round pick who arrived via trade last season and was beset by injuries before tearing his ACL. Benn, 25, has size and talent. He has not been able to stay healthy. He needs to show the coaching staff they can trust him. Benn is due $1 million this season.

Will Murphy spent last season on practice squad and signed a futures contract. Joe Anderson spent the past two seasons with the Bears and joined the Eagles last week. Ifeanyi Momah has size and potential, but did not impress during training camp and the preseason. The Eagles did not even keep him on practice squad, although Momah will have another chance to show his development during the offseason.

 OFFSEASON PLANS

As stated above, this depends on Maclin and Cooper. If Eagles keep one or the other, it would obviously change the necessity. Either way, look for the Eagles to be active at this position. They need to determine what to do about both free agents, they must figure out Avant’s future, and they could have a decision to make on Jackson’s future, too.

The free agent market is fairly deep. Decker and Nicks are the top receivers. After that, there’s a collection of starters. Edelman is coming off a nice season in New England, Tate helped the Seahawks to a Super Bowl, and Anquan Boldin is a respected veteran. Pittsburgh’s Emmanuel Sanders has been productive at times, as has Carolina’s Brandon LaFell and Tennessee’s Kenny Britt. All three are 27 and younger.

Complicating the free agent class is how loaded the draft is at wide receiver. There could be 13 receivers in the first three rounds, and many are tall and physical – which the Eagles receiving corps lacks.

The top receiver is Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, who will be long gone by the Eagles pick. It would not be a surprise if the Eagles addressed the position in the first round, though, when Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin (6-foot-5, 235 pounds) and Southern California’s Marqise Lee (344 yards in two games against Kelly’s Oregon teams) would be sensible targets.

Penn State’s Allen Robinson (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) and Vanderbilt Jordan Matthews (6-foot-3, 209 pounds) are two big-bodied receivers who were productive in college and could slip into the second round. There are about 10 other names that could reasonably be mentioned here. It's that impressive of a draft class. 

In the middle rounds, pay attention to Rutgers’ Brandon Coleman (6-foot-6, 220 pounds). Coleman might jump up the board after workouts, but his production declined in his junior season.

Because it’s always worth mentioning anyone who played for Kelly, Josh Huff could be a player to watch. Huff (5-foot-11, 211 pounds) became the first Oregon receiver since Maehl to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season.  

This is a key position during the offseason because it could either be a major need or simply a luxury. That depends on Maclin and Cooper.

zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

 

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Birds' Eye View is the Inquirer's blog covering all things Philadelphia Eagles and the NFL.

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