Philadelphia Eagles positional reviews: Will wide receiver Alshon Jeffery be the missing piece?

Philly.com is looking at the Eagles’ 90-man roster over the next two weeks before they begin organized team activities on May 23. Here’s the schedule:

March 8: Wide receivers
May 9: Running backs
May 10: Offensive linemen
May 11: Tight ends
May 12: Defensive ends
May 15: Defensive tackles
May 16: Linebackers
May 17: Cornerbacks
May 18: Safeties
May 19: Quarterbacks

WIDE RECEIVERS

Spotlight on: Alshon Jeffery

Jeffery became the Eagles’ highest-profile free-agent addition since Nnamdi Asomugha when they inked the 27-year-old receiver to a one-year, $9.5 million contract this offseason. Invoking the name of Asomugha might frighten some, but it’s unlikely that Jeffery will be the bust the cornerback was during his two-year stint in Philly. The Eagles didn’t make as much of a financial commitment to Jeffery, so there isn’t as much at stake. They would have preferred to lock him up long-term, but the former Bear wanted a one-year, show-me deal. While that might not give the Eagles any assurances beyond 2017, they will have the franchise tag at their disposal if they want to keep Jeffery. So they have some flexibility.

Jeffery will be motivated. He wasn’t getting mega-contract offers because of a four-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs last year and because injuries also have kept him off the field. There is obvious concern that both are related, as in Jeffery believes he needs PEDs to stay healthy. But it might also have just been an isolated incident. It has been three seasons, though, since he eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving. But in 2013 and '14, there weren’t many receivers as productive. Jeffery caught 174 passes for 2,554 yards (14.7 avg.) and 17 touchdowns over that span. He played in all 32 games and 90 percent of offensive snaps.

The 6-foot-3, 218-pound Jeffery is your classic go-up-and-get-it receiver. He has great body control and can often out-jump or out-muscle cornerbacks on the outside. Carson Wentz desperately needs that kind of threat outside the numbers. Jeffery should make life easier for the entire offense. Wentz will have his big target down the field, the other skill position players will have a No. 1 receiver who will draw safety attention and free up space, and the offensive line, in theory, shouldn’t have to hold their blocks as long. The Eagles needed to upgrade at receiver more than any other position, and they did so in snagging the unassuming receiver.

On the 53-man roster: Jeffery, Jordan Matthews, Torrey Smith

While it is clear that Jeffery will start on one side of the field, it’s not necessarily a slam dunk that Smith will start on the other. He likely will considering the competition, but the Eagles didn’t exactly make a significant financial commitment to the former 49ers and Ravens receiver. Only $500,000 of Smith’s three-year, $15 million contract is guaranteed. Smith was brought in to give the Eagles a field stretcher. Since 2011, only DeSean Jackson (17.4) has averaged more yards per catch than Smith (17.0). But Smith was nowhere near as productive last season in San Francisco (20 catches for 267 yards and three touchdowns) even though he still had his chances down the field. Smith caught only 40.8 percent of his targets. The 49ers offense was a mess, so he gets graded slightly on a curve. But he didn’t have a strong season by any stretch. He said in March that he hasn’t lost a step. He still is only 28, so it’s possible. The Eagles aren’t relying on him to carry the passing offense, but they are expecting him to a hit a few home runs to keep safeties honest.

Jordan Matthews will once again line up primarily in the slot. There was some expectation last year that the Eagles might try to extend him this offseason, but there were never any real talks. In fact, if there was any negotiating going on in regards to Matthews, it seemed to be with other teams in the form of a trade. Matthews wasn’t quite on precarious ground after the Jeffery and Smith signings, but if the Eagles had drafted a receiver in the first or second round last month, the expectation here is that he would have been dealt.

The Eagles like Matthews, and maybe they do extend him next offseason, especially if he has a standout season. But his days as the No. 1 receiving option are likely over. There’s only so much receivers can do working from inside. And Matthews has been unable to show that he’s more valuable on the outside. He has struggled to get separation vs. man coverage and to make sideline grabs. That isn’t to say he isn’t good. Matthews is adept at finding creases in zones and gives Wentz a big target over the middle. But he’s likely a No. 2 receiver, at best, and this coming offseason, he might wish to be paid as more.

On the 53-man bubble: Nelson Agholor, Dorial Green-Beckham, Paul Turner

If you were to map out the final cuts for the Eagles’ 2017 roster right now, Agohlor, Green-Beckham and Turner might not make the team. With the addition of the two aforementioned free agents and the two draftees (more on them later), and assuming Matthews is still around come September, the Eagles would have five roster locks at receiver. They could be persuaded to keep six, and the early guess here is that Agholor survives. But nothing is guaranteed for the former first-round pick who was drafted during Howie Roseman’s one-year personnel hiatus and before Doug Pederson become head coach. Agholor has ability, but it’s limited, and when you factor in his mental lapses, it’s nearly negligible. He was just too inconsistent last season to expect him to come in and compete for a starting and possibly even a reserve role. He didn’t play on special teams, aside from a few returns, and doesn’t project as the regular returner this year. He hasn’t contributed in other ways on special teams, either.

Neither has Green-Beckham, although he has the size. But that length hasn’t helped him much as a receiver. It’s difficult to see Green-Beckham making the cut. While Agholor still carries a salary-cap hit ($2,557,465) for 2017, Green-Beckham would cost the Eagles nothing if released. If he doesn’t get the message this year, he never will. He has relied on his natural abilities and size for a long time, but those alone aren’t enough in the NFL. Green-Beckham had success with basically one route – the slant – last season. He dropped as many passes as Agholor, and was particularly woeful in the red zone, where you would think his size would be an advantage.

You put Turner’s heart and head in Green-Beckham’s body and you might have a Pro Bowl receiver. The undrafted rookie fought his way back onto the Eagles’ roster and earned some late-season playing time. Turner caught nine passes for 126 yards. He’s likely to do great things in training camp and the preseason, but he’s got an uphill climb to making the 53-man roster. But stranger things have happened and there are many variables that could play out over the next several months.

On the 90-man bubble: Rasheed Bailey, Bryce Treggs, David Watford

Treggs was claimed off waivers just before last season, and sat idly for weeks until he was activated in Week 8. He made his mark immediately, catching a 58-yard bomb against the New York Giants. But that essentially was his lone contribution. Treggs is a burner, but like Green-Beckham has been known to enjoy the luxuries of playing in the NFL more than one who hasn’t exactly quite made it should.

Bailey, an Eagles training-camp favorite from two years ago, spent time with the Jaguars and Chargers the last two years, but never made it on the field. The Eagles re-signed him in January. The Philadelphia native will generate a lot of positive press for the team and himself, and maybe he’s got a little preseason run for the roster in him, but more than likely, he’s here just to be a camp body.

Draft picks: Mack Hollins, Shelton Gibson

The Eagles’ rookies report for a three-day camp on Friday. Reporters won’t have access to practice until OTAs start in two weeks, so it will be some time before we get our first glimpse of Hollins and Gibson in NFL uniforms. But we should be able to gather rather quickly if they have the necessary speed to perform at this level. Both can fly. Hollins’ 40-yard dash time at the combine was more than 4.5 seconds, but he pulled up lame for the final 10 yards. He’s an intriguing prospect. He has size (6-4, 221 pounds) and can burn. He’ll have a hard time cracking the lineup on offense, but he should be active on game days because of his special-teams pedigree.

Gibson didn’t run a blistering 40 at the combine, either, but he said he’s faster in pads (which sounds great, but isn’t possible). What he probably meant to say is that he doesn’t lose as much speed in pads as do the cornerbacks he was running against in college. NFL cornerbacks, of course, tend not to lose much in pads. Nevertheless, the 5-11, 191-pound Gibson put up some big numbers in yards per catch (22.6 avg.) during his three seasons with West Virginia. Should he be able to transfer that big-play talent to the pros, the Eagles might have found themselves a steal in the fifth round.

The Eagles haven’t officially announced which undrafted rookies they’ve signed to the 90-man roster, but there have been reports that Houston quarterback Greg Ward (he’s expected to switch to receiver) will be in the group. 

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