Saturday, September 20, 2014
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State of the Eagles: Wide receiver

The Eagles gathered for their first “organiz

State of the Eagles: Wide receiver

Eagles wide receivers Jeremy Maclin (left), Riley Cooper (center), and Jordan Matthews (right). (Staff and AP Photos)
Eagles wide receivers Jeremy Maclin (left), Riley Cooper (center), and Jordan Matthews (right). (Staff and AP Photos)

The Eagles gathered for their first “organiz

ed team activity” on May 27 and will meet for a total of ten practices over three weeks before a three-day minicamp from June17-19 concludes the spring portion of workouts.

Over two weeks we’ll reset the 90-man roster, looking at each position and where the depth chart stands heading into July’s training camp. We’ve already done the offensive line, tight end, defensive line, outside linebacker and now move onto wide receiver:

Projected first team

WR1: Jeremy Maclin (6-0, 198), 26, 6th
WR2: Riley Cooper (6-3, 222), 26, 5th
WR3: Jordan Matthews (6-3, 212), 21, rookie

It’s difficult to write about the Eagles’ wide receivers without mentioning the departed DeSean Jackson, but here it goes … Wait, I already mentioned him. Scratch that. As much as many want to move past Chip Kelly’s decision to release Jackson in March, there’s no getting around the intrigue of how the receiver corp will look without the Eagles’ top target over the last six years. There’s the argument that Kelly has enough weapons to offset the loss of Jackson (82 catches for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns in 2013), but everyone around the NFL is curious as to how he will do it.

The production won’t just come from the receivers, but Jeremy Maclin will be most responsible for running Jackson’s routes. Maclin doesn’t have Jackson’s ability to stretch the field, but he should be able to work more effectively underneath, and Kelly will play to his strengths. Monday’s practice in which Maclin fell to the ground and clutched his knee – briefly scaring the Eagles -- was only the first of what should be months of breath-holding. It isn’t just that Maclin is returning from the second of two torn ACL injuries in his career. It’s that he’s never been what you could describe as a durable player. He missed his entire freshman season at Missouri after his first ACL tear. He missed five games and parts of several others in his first four seasons to injury. And he sat out all of last season after tearing his ACL during training camp. Maclin is an above average receiver and could reach another level this season now that Jackson is no longer casting a shadow. He just has to go out and prove it now.

(I wrote about the pressure the Eagles are openly placing on Maclin’s shoulders last week.)

Maclin has never averaged more than 13.8 yards a catch in his NFL career. Of course, he’s yet to play in Kelly’s big-play system. Riley Cooper has and averaged a third-best-in-the-league 17.8 yards per catch. While not blessed with blazing speed, Cooper has a knack for tracking fly balls. He had almost as much to do with clearing out space for underneath routes as Jackson. But can he put up the same numbers (47 catches for 835 yards and eight touchdowns) without Jackson? That depends on how much credit you give the players or Kelly for the offensive success. Cooper had a few early-season drops, but was sure handed the rest of the way until the playoff loss to the Saints when he dropped a gimme.

Brad Smith has been running with the first team, but I’m projecting Jordan Matthews as the eventual No. 1 slot receiver. Smith may get more snaps initially once the season starts, but I would expect the second-round rookie to take over sooner rather than later. He didn’t look overwhelmed the first time I watched him practice on Monday. Matthews has the size and skill-set to catch balls in the middle of the field and pick up yards after the catch. He will have his moments on the outside and could eventually move there permanently. But the Eagles want him to fill the hole left by Jason Avant and force defenses to pay more attention to the space in between the numbers than they did a year ago.

(I wrote more about Matthews’ Monday session and his prospects in the slot in this column.)

Projected second team

WR4: Josh Huff (5-11, 206), 22, rookie
WR5: Brad Smith (6-2, 213), 30, 9th
WR6: Arrelious Benn (6-2, 220), 25, 5th

If you’re going to be the fourth, fifth or sixth receiver on the Eagles roster, you better know how to contribute on special teams. There won’t be many opportunities to play on offense behind the top three wideouts with tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz and running backs LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles as capable of catching passes downfield. Josh Huff, though, could be a wild card. He’s become a bit of an afterthought behind Matthews, but may surprise many with his explosiveness and versatility. Chris Brown of Grantland pointed out to me yesterday that Oregon would sometimes run Huff out of the backfield on jet sweeps, so Kelly could have other plans for the rookie aside from pass catching. Huff is almost built more like a running back than a receiver. The Eagles have been starting him out on the outside, but he could just as easily move into the slot and battle Matthews and Smith for playing time.

The Eagles like Smith’s steadiness and versatility. He’s the senior-most player in the receiver room now that Avant is gone and is a leads-by-example pro. Kelly got a little too cute with Smith on a few option plays last season, but he does bring that skill-set (throwing) to the table. He can also help Sproles in the return game.

The Eagles carried only five receivers for most of last season, but I could see them taking six this year and leaving a fourth running back (after McCoy, Sproles and Chris Polk) off the 53-man roster. I have Arrelious Benn slightly ahead of Jeff Maehl for that last spot. He’s returning from a torn ACL and has yet to play a full season in the NFL, so he’s far from being assured a spot. But he has good size and can fill a number of roles on special teams.   

Others

Kadron Boone (6-0, 204), 22, rookie; B.J. Cunningham, (6-2, 215), 25, 1st; Damaris Johnson (5-8, 175), 24, 3d; Jeff Maehl (6-0, 184), 25, 2d; Ifeanyi Momah (6-7, 239), 24, 1st; Will Murphy (6-2, 200), 24, 1st; Quron Pratt (5-11, 195), 23, rookie.

Maehl caught four passes for 67 yards and a touchdown last season. He played 12 percent of snaps and improved on special teams as the season wore on. But he dropped two of eight targeted passes and doesn’t have much of an upside other than being a former Duck that Kelly trusts. Damaris Johnson’s fall under Kelly was rapid. He opened last season as the kick and punt returner, but by the end of the season was doing neither and hardly playing. If the Eagles could have gotten anything for Johnson in a trade he would be gone. It’s not that he doesn’t have some talent, it’s that his size and lack of great athleticism makes him less valuable in Kelly’s system. The Eagles brought the praying mantis-looking Ifeanyi Momah back for another look-see. He’s looked a little more capable during the two OTAs I’ve witnessed, but he still struggles to get separation or in and out of his breaks.  

Of the undrafted rookies, Quron Pratt has stood out the most – not because he’s done anything spectacular, but for wearing Jackson’s old No. 10.


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