In what has been one of the least newsworthy Eagles training camps of the last decade, second round pick Jordan Matthews has become perhaps the biggest story of camp because of his play on the practice field. The lack of starting QB battles, controversial videos, and players making "Dream Team" proclamations has helped contribute to the over-saturation of Matthews hype.
He's not undeserving. Matthews' play has certainly been worth the recognition, as has his work ethic and overall approach to the game. It's just that the volume of praise has been more than ordinary since the Eagles' media contingent is so abnormally large and Matthews' encouraging play has been so obvious. Because so much has already been written about Matthews, a common question that has emerged is, "If Matthews is so good, why wasn't he a first round pick?"
To begin, this 2014 draft was loaded. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert called the 2014 the deepest he had seen in his 30 years in the NFL. And within that talent pool, the consensus position of strength was at wide receiver. Prior to the draft, NFL Network's Mike Mayock said "It’s the best wide receiver class that I’ve seen in years." ESPN's Mel Kiper backed that thinking, stating “I think if you look at the wide receiver position because of the tremendous depth in that first round, you could see six to nine wide receivers go in the first round.”
As it turned out, there were six wide receivers drafted ahead of Matthews in May:
Matthews went 42nd overall to the Eagles.
Beyond the impressive talent pool in the draft, it was interesting to go back and look at some of the statistical metrics attributed to Matthews prior to the draft. For example, Rotoworld's Greg Peshek took an extensive look at the tape of some of the top WR prospects in the country... and there were plenty to go around. In his first installment, Peshek looked at Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin, and Marqise Lee. In his 2.0 version, Peshek analyzed Brandin Cooks, Jordan Matthews, Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham, and Allen Robinson. In each of those studies, Peshek came to some conclusions on the following observations about each receiver:
• How far down the field they typically caught the ball.
• Their average yards after the catch.
• What types of routes they most commonly ran when they made receptions.
• How often they dropped passes.
It's outstanding work, and worth a look. After the draft, I felt that Peshek's analysis matched up with what I saw of Matthews when I watched his college games. However, after having watched Matthews throughout OTAs, minicamp, and the first 10 practices at training camp, my opinion of his game has changed. Let's take a look back at what Peshek saw of Matthews when he conducted his analysis, and compare that with what we have seen so far at camp.
How far down the field was Matthews catching passes?
Peshek: "Jordan Matthews’ map of completions is very similar to that of Sammy Watkins. They both caught around 50% of their receptions behind the line of scrimmage with limited experience downfield. Whereas the average WR caught 35% of their passes deeper than 10 yards, Matthews only caught approximately 24%."
What have we seen at camp? During the draft process, there were some concerns that Matthews only put up gaudy college numbers because he caught so many screen passes. Were the bulk of his catches too easy? Could he run the full route tree and make plays all over the field? Those concerns were valid.
After watching Matthews in camp, it is no longer a concern of mine. Matthews has made an absurd number of catches, running the full route tree. He's getting open and making plays running a wide variety of routes. For full disclosure, most of that damage was inflicted upon the second team defense, but Matthews has shown that he is more than capable of running good routes down the field.
What was Matthews' average yards after the catch?
Peshek: "Jordan Matthews is in a similar YAC predicament as Robinson. His overall YAC of 7.8 would put him second in this class only behind Sammy Watkins. However, his screens up this number significantly. On the 55% of his receptions that aren’t screens, he averages 4.7 YPC – a number that is slightly below average."
What have we seen at camp? Too early to tell. There's no tackling in Chip Kelly's camp, so determining how well a receiver gets yards after the catch (YAC) is nearly impossible. However, I did note Matthews' style of running after the catch in my practice notes one day during camp.
(Matthews') run after the catch style is no-nonsense. It's "get it and go." There are no stutter steps, no back-tracking, no juking. He just gets vertical. In the past we've seen LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson produce big plays with lateral jukes, so I'm certainly not saying that's Matthews' style is more effective, but I do like that he doesn't seem to leave any meat on the bone once he has the ball in his hands. He knows he's not a juker, and doesn't try to be one.
I can say with a high level of certainty that Matthews will be better running after the catch than the guy he's replacing this season, Jason Avant. Of course, that isn't saying much, as YAC ability was not one of Avant's strengths. To be determined how well Matthews runs after the catch in the Eagles' offense. That will be something to watch for in the preseason games.
What types of routes did Matthews most commonly run?
Peshek: "It’s much harder to explain away Jordan Matthews’ poor YAC than Cooks or Robinson. 45% of his non-screen receptions were high YAC producing slants/posts/corners, so why did he barely average 4.6 yards after the catch? It’s tough to say, but that’s when you have to start wondering if his run after the catch ability is a product of the Vanderbilt system."
What have we seen at camp? Peshek notes within his piece that comeback routes typically produce the lowest number of yards after the catch, which makes sense considering receivers are catching the ball while coming back toward the QB on those patterns. Because Matthews had a low percentage of comeback routes on his receptions, it stands to reason that he should have a better YAC average. Again, as noted above, there wasn't much to see in terms of Matthews' YAC ability with no tackling in camp. We'll have to wait and see.
How often did Matthews drop passes?
Peshek: "The biggest player to watch out for here is Jordan Matthews who has a slightly above-average drop rate of 7.69%. There were a few 50/50 drops that I hedged on Matthews’ side for. He could realistically be anywhere between 7-11%. If you’re watching Matthews intently, keep an eye on his hands."
What have we seen at camp? Last training camp, Zach Ertz came to Philly with a reputation for dropping passes, which is exactly what we saw at times in camp and in the preseason games. As the season progressed, Ertz did a much better job catching the football. Matthews too came into camp with a reputation of dropping passes, but has caught almost everything he has gotten his hands on. He's been as impressive catching the football as any receiver in camp.
Beating press coverage
The ability to beat press coverage is not something that Peshek could qualify with numbers, and so it does not appear in his reports. It is also perhaps the most difficult thing to project from the college level to the pro level, as noted by Eagles GM Howie Roseman back in May.
"I think it is harder (to evaluate receivers than other positions)," said Roseman, "because when you look back at the history of receivers drafted high, the success rate at that position is lower than other positions. The primary reason is one, with the advent of the spread offense, most of the time, your 3rd receiver is going to be better than their 3rd cornerback, so there's not enough defensive backs to cover these guys, and so what defensive coordinators in college football are doing is they're playing softer, so you're not seeing a lot of press coverage. You don't see a lot of the challenging they get in the NFL. That's the hardest thing to project, is how they'll get off the line of scrimmage against press coverage when he's going against a 5'8, 180 pound guy. Now he's got to get up against a 6'0, 205 pound guy with 34 inch arms."
In OTAs and minicamp, as well as the first few practices in training camp, Matthews did not face press coverage because the Eagles were not practicing in pads. Therefore, the amount of exposure he has had to press coverage has been minimal. Beating press coverage was considered a likely strength for Matthews, considering his good size and physical nature. So far, there has been no reason to be alarmed that he can't get off the line of scrimmage in the pros. Matthews has even specifically requested that physical players such as Brandon Boykin and Malcolm Jenkins cover him in practice for the purpose of facing legitimate NFL-level press coverage.
So should Jordan Matthews have been a first round pick?
Jordan Matthews has not yet played a game in the NFL. Not even a preseason game. Determining whether or not he should have been valued as a first round pick, therefore, seems a bit premature. With that disclaimer in place, after having watched Matthews over the last couple of months, many of the concerns about his game haven't appeared in his short time so far with the Eagles, and it is looking a lot like the Eagles got great value with the 42nd overall pick.
Follow Jimmy on Twitter: @JimmyKempski