Previewing the Eagles' offseason: Wide receivers

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This busted lip, suffered in the Falcons game in November, was the least of Jordan Matthews' injury worries.

The Inquirer is previewing the Eagles’ offseason. NFL free agency will begin on March 9, and the draft will be April 27-29.

Schedule of previews:

Monday, Feb. 13: Quarterbacks

Tuesday, Feb. 14: Running backs

Today: Wide receivers

Thursday, Feb. 16: Offensive line

Friday, Feb. 17: Tight ends

Monday, Feb. 20: Defensive ends

Tuesday, Feb. 21: Defensive tackles

Wednesday, Feb. 22: Linebackers

Thursday, Feb. 23: Cornerbacks

Friday, Feb. 24: Safeties

WIDE RECEIVERS

UNDER CONTRACT

Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, Dorial Green-Beckham, Bryce Treggs, Paul Turner, Marcus Johnson, David Watford, Rasheed Bailey, Dom Williams

It’s not breaking news that the Eagles had problems at wide receiver last season. Jordan Matthews regressed, Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham failed to develop as starting options, and Paul Turner and Bryce Treggs were down-the-depth-chart players. This is clearly a position that will be upgraded during the next three months.

Matthews, 24, finished with 73 catches for 804 yards and three touchdowns in his third NFL season – all of those numbers declined from the previous year. He also missed two games with an ankle injury that affected him throughout the final month of the season. In the 10 games before Matthews' ankle injury, he totaled 53 catches for 639 yards and three touchdowns with a 16-game pace of 85 catches, 1,022 yards and five touchdowns. Matthews will be the team’s top returning receiver, but he needs help in the starting lineup. Also, the team feels he’s best used in the slot, so there is a clear need for a top receiver on the outside.

Those were the spots where Agholor and Green-Beckham failed to live up to expectations. Both were among the top 40 picks in the previous year’s draft, but they had disappointing sophomore seasons. Agholor struggled with drops and had a crisis of confidence in November that led to a one-game benching. He still took 78 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, but he finished with only 36 catches for 365 yards and two touchdowns. After two NFL seasons, Agholor hasn’t produced like the prospect who compelled the Eagles to take him No. 20 out of USC in 2015. That was not a reach, either – he demonstrated skills that seemed they could translate to the pro game, especially his route running. The coaching staff lauded his ability to get open (and his blocking, which is the Riley Cooper backhanded compliment), but he needs to be more reliable if he’s going to be a regular NFL player. He has a $2.557 million cap number in 2017 and there are no savings if the Eagles cut him, so unless they traded him for the purpose of a change of scenery or released him simply to cut their losses, Agholor will try to carve out a spot on an upgraded depth chart. 

Green-Beckham was acquired in an August trade, and his 6-foot-5, 237-pound frame continues to intrigue. But the Eagles did not get nearly enough production from Green-Beckham, who was not a threat downfield and was most effective on slants. He had 36 catches for 392 yards and two touchdowns while playing 57 percent of the offensive snaps. The 10.9 yards per catch were well below the 17.2 he averaged while a rookie with Tennessee. Perhaps an offseason with the team and new wide receivers Mike Groh can help unlock the ability, but Green-Beckham will need to prove he can be more productive.

One complication is if the Eagles add wide receiver help, Green-Beckham would get pushed down the depth chart, and he’s not a special-teams contributor. It’s tough to have a non-starting wide receiver who doesn’t play special teams, although the Eagles went through 2016 that way. He counts less than $1 million against the salary cap, and there is no guaranteed money.

Bryce Treggs (3 catches, 80 yards) and Paul Turner (9 catches, 106 yards) both had their moments – however brief – but roster math doesn’t work in their favor. If the Eagles add at least two wide receivers this offseason, Treggs and Turner will need the players ahead of them on the depth chart to be elsewhere in 2017 to make the roster.

Marcus Johnson and David Watford were practice-squad receivers who were in training camp last season. They’ll try again to impress this season. Rasheed Bailey, a Philadelphia native who was a preseason standout in 2014, has bounced around practice squads and will try to catch this coaching staff’s attention. The Eagles signed  Dom Williams to a futures deal after he spent time with San Diego last season.

ROSTER DECISIONS

The Eagles have no pending free agents at the position, so they don’t need to decide whom they will re-sign. Matthews is eligible for a contract extension, although his value is likely not what he would want it to be. If the Eagles see him as a long-term player in the organization – I think they should; he’s the best receiver they’ve drafted since Jeremy Maclin and is only 24 with the size, ability, and personality to be a dependable player – they can try to lock him into a long-term deal. But his value will likely be higher with a better season. However, if his workload decreases because of additions this offseason, it might not be a better season. That’s a decision Matthews and his representatives must make – and the point is moot if the Eagles don’t offer a new deal.

The Eagles also will need to decide whether they want to move on from Agholor and/or Green-Beckham. They are entering only their third seasons and clearly there was enough talent to warrant such high draft selections. They would not be considered "cap casualities," so the question would only be if the Eagles feel they don’t have a place on the 53-man roster. I still think they can have a role in a five-man receiving corps that includes Matthews, a free-agent acquisition, and a rookie. However, the rookie would need to be able to contribute on special teams, and Agholor must develop as a kick returner.

FREE-AGENT OPTIONS

The Eagles need immediate help at wide receiver, and they’re likely to turn to free agency to find it. If the Eagles sign a big-ticket free agent on March 9, look for it to be a wide receiver. And there is no bigger name in this class than Alshon Jeffery.

If the Eagles are going to overpay any free agent, Jeffery fits the bill. Although the Chicago Bears could still use the franchise tag on or re-sign Jeffery, he would be the most attractive receiver if he hits the open market. Jeffery turned 27 on Tuesday, and he’s already made a Pro Bowl and topped 1,000 yards twice in his first five seasons. Neither of those 1,000-yard campaigns was in 2015 or 2016, so he’s coming off two sub-standard years. Availability has been part of the reason – injury limited Jeffery to nine games in 2015, and a PED suspension kept him to 12 games last year – but he’s a difference maker when on the field. At 6-3 and 218 pounds, Jeffery is especially dangerous downfield and in jump-ball situations He averages 15 yards per catch in his career and he has 17 40-plus-yard plays in his career, so he’s not just a big target. He also has a background with Groh, who coached Jeffery during two of Jeffery’s best seasons.

The Eagles would need to study the factors that contributed to a decline in production in recent years, but it’s rare that a player of Jeffery’s caliber hits the free-agent market. He could become a No. 1 wide receiver for the Eagles, although the problem is that demand could be high for Jeffery. The Eagles don’t have the salary-cap space of other receiver-needy teams such as the San Francisco 49ers, so the marketplace and how much cap space the Eagles can open could determine whether they are players for Jeffery.

One name you’ll read linked to the Eagles is DeSean Jackson. The reasons are obvious. Jackson spent six seasons with the Eagles and was given a new contract by Howie Roseman. The decision to part with Jackson in 2014 came from Chip Kelly, but Jackson had a previous relationship with coach Doug Pederson. Plus, Jackson has remained productive in Washington – Jackson had 56 catches for 1,005 yards and four touchdowns this past season. He could provide a downfield threat that the Eagles lack – his 17.7 yards per catch are tough to ignore. However, Jackson has already turned 30. The Eagles, or any other team that signs Jackson, would need to decide whether to spend big on a speed receiver at that age. Jackson has a special talent, but the questions are how age will affect that talent and how many years a contract will require.

For that type of player, the Eagles could look to Miami’s Kenny Stills. Only 24, Stills presents a similar skill set – albeit without Jackson’s consistent track record of production. In four years with Miami and New Orleans, Stills has averaged 16.7 yards per catch. He finished with 42 catches for 726 yards and nine touchdowns with the Dolphins last season. But for those very reasons, Miami could pay to keep him.

Cleveland’s Terrelle Pryor would be appealing if he hits the market, but that’s unlikely. Pryor had 77 catches for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns in his first full season as a wide receiver. The Browns have money to spend and the desire to keep him. So it might be good to talk about, but it’s a conversation worth having only if there’s no deal by March 7. He could get the franchise tag in the coming weeks, too.

After a career season in 2016 with the Los Angeles Rams, Kenny Britt is hitting the market at the right time. Working with Groh, Britt finished with 68 catches for 1,002 yards and five touchdowns. He has tantalized with his talent ever since he was a first-round pick out of Rutgers in 2009. Britt has played in the NFL for eight seasons, though, and he will turn 29 in September. He’s more of a Band-Aid option than someone who would likely grow with Carson Wentz.

Britt is younger than Pierre Garcon and Victor Cruz, two former Pro Bowlers from the NFC East. Garcon would be more appealing than Cruz after catching 79 passes for 1,041 yards and three touchdowns with Washington last season. He has twice topped 1,000 yards in nine NFL seasons and has been a reliable receiver. But he will turn 31 in August, so he doesn’t fit the profile of player in whom the Eagles would invest big money. As a Band-Aid option, Garcon would be worth a look. Cruz, 30, came back from a devastating injury to catch 39 passes with the Giants last season. However, he presents his most value in the slot – the same place Matthews is best.

If you’re looking for an under-the-radar candidate, how about Buffalo’s Robert Woods? Woods will turn 25 in April, he has averaged 50.75 catches with inconsistent quarterback play in his four seasons with the Bills, and he can be a solid option in the Eagles’ rotation. But he has yet to prove he can be a No. 1 wide receiver, which is what the Eagles need. Woods would make sense if the Eagles signed two receivers.

For a buy-low candidate, look at Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson. At 25 and 6-2 and 220 pounds, Patterson has physical skills that could entice. He had 52 catches for 453 yards and two touchdowns and presents a versatile skill set that includes elite kick-return ability and potential help in the running game. However, he has not become a top receiver for a team that needed one.

New England’s Michael Floyd is another former first-round pick with intriguing ability (6-2, 220, 27 years old, three 800-plus-yard seasons), but Floyd’s stock is low after a bad season (37 catches, 488 yards) and a midseason arrest that prompted the Arizona Cardinals to waive him.

Brian Quick (6-3, 218, 27 years old) had 41 catches for 564 yards and three touchdowns with the Rams last season, but he has never lived up to his second-round draft billing. Baltimore’s Kamar Aiken (6-2, 215, 27 years old) had a disappointing season after catching 75 passes for 944 yards and four touchdowns in 2015. Aiken was in Baltimore when  Eagles executive Joe Douglas worked with the Ravens.

Also, you can’t dismiss trade options – especially with Roseman in charge.

In December, ESPN reported that Brandin Cooks could be the subject of trade talks this offseason. Saints coach Sean Payton dismissed the report, but if Cooks is somehow available, he’s a player to target. Cooks is only 23 – he’s actually younger than Wentz by nine months – and already has two 1,000-yard seasons. Cooks is a legitimate deep threat who can also be a volume wide receiver. If the Saints aren’t moving him, then the point is moot. But if they’d consider it – he’s eligible for a contract extension – then the Eagles could use draft capital to try to give Wentz an option to grow with during the next decade.

DRAFT OPTIONS

At the Senior Bowl, Roseman noted that wide receiver has not traditionally been a plug-and-play position – save for the extraordinary 2014 draft class. To Roseman’s point, only seven rookies topped 1,000 receiving yards in the past 10 years. Three came in 2014. That doesn’t mean the Eagles won’t draft a wide receiver. It just means that immediate help is more likely to come in free agency.

In the draft, the top options are Clemson’s Mike Williams and Western Michigan’s Corey Davis. Williams, at 6-3 and 225 pounds, excels at contested passes and finished with 98 catches for 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns. There will be intrigue about what he runs at the combine, but he has the size and hands to be a potential difference maker. Davis, who is 6-3 and 213 pounds, is an explosive talent with prototypical size. He had 97 catches for 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. Both players could be off the board when the Eagles select at No. 14 or 15 in the first round, but if one is available, there will likely be calls from fans to take him even though the Eagles used a first-round pick on Nelson Agholor in 2015.

If you’re looking for a big-play threat, check out Washington’s John Ross. The 5-11, 190-pound junior had 81 catches for 1,150 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, and he also rushed eight times for 102 yards and a score. He brings special-teams value, too. You’ll hear Ross compared to DeSean Jackson and Philadelphia native Will Fuller, a first-round pick by the Houston Texans last season.

At the Senior Bowl, Eastern Washington’s Cooper Kupp and East Carolina’s Zay Jones impressed. Kupp, at 6-2 and 198 pounds, excelled at the FCS level, where he set all-time records in receptions (428), yards (6,464), and touchdowns (73). He looked sure-handed at the Senior Bowl, and he shares the same agency as Wentz. Jones, whose brother Cayleb was in training camp with the Eagles last year, is 6-2 and 202 pounds and also set records, including an NCAA-best 158 catches last season for 1,746 yards and eight touchdowns in a high-volume offense. But don’t dismiss his production because of his system – in Mobile, he caught anything that came in his direction.

USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster might scare Eagles fans who feel burned by Agholor, a former Trojan, but you need to watch the player and not the jersey. At 6-2 and 220 pounds, Smith-Schuster has good size and had 70 catches for 914 yards and 10 touchdowns in a junior season affected by a back injury. Penn State fans will remember his seven catches for 113 yards and one touchdown in the Rose Bowl.

If you want production, it’ll be hard to dismiss Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook, who was an all-American with 80 catches for 1,524 yards and 17 touchdowns last year. He lacks top size (6-0, 176 pounds), and teams will need to investigate his off-field history, but his 2016 production jumps off the page.

LSU’s quarterback problems slowed the production of receivers Malachi Dupre (6-4, 195) and Travin Duval (6-1, 206). But recent LSU receivers have fared better in the NFL than in college, and there is talent there for teams to see.

Other Day 2 and mid-round possibilities are Texas A&M’s Josh Reynolds (6-3, 187) Virginia Tech’s Isaiah Ford (6-2, 195), Ohio State’s Noah Brown (6-2, 222), and Michigan’s Amara Dabroh (6-2, 215). North Carolina’s Ryan Switzer (5-9, 179) and Western Kentucky’s Taywon Taylor (5-11, 198) were productive slot receivers.

Local college football fans will make a case for Penn State’s Chris Godwin (5-11, 205), a Delaware native who had nine catches for 187 yards and two touchdowns in the Rose Bowl.

There is talent at wide receiver in this class. It's not like 2014, but the Eagles could find one to develop. The question will be whether they make another first-round investment, or if they look for one on Day 2 or 3 and rely on free-agent acquisition(s) to upgrade the position.