Ford: Jordan Matthews gets his chance

Jordan Matthews was the Eagles receiver with the lowest percentage of dropped passes last season, which, given his competition for that distinction, is a bit like being the least aromatic elephant in the circus.

Pretty much, they all stunk.

Still, it was better to be Matthews, who, according to sportingcharts.com, had just five drops in 128 targeted passes. Defining a drop isn't that easy, but guys like Riley Cooper, Nelson Agholor, and Josh Huff nearly doubled Matthews' percentage, so it's a reasonable measure to adopt.

Also in 2015, Matthews benefited, at least individually, from playing in Chip Kelly's hurry-up-and-punt offense, which likewise made him unique among his teammates. Matthews finished with 85 receptions, 997 yards, and a team-high eight touchdowns. After two seasons in the league, Matthews has 152 receptions, and he is the franchise's all-time catch leader at that stage of his career.

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The flip side of all those statistical positives, of course, is that Matthews was operating in a system as the slot receiver in which the large majority of his receptions was neither very difficult to catch nor went very far. Kelly's route "trees" seldom blossomed into deeper threats, so Matthews gobbled up check-down passes from Sam Bradford on a forest of short crossing and slant patterns. His 85 catches placed him 15th in the league, but he was 26th in receiving yardage.

Matthews is ready for greater challenges and opportunities under new coach Doug Pederson, and he's apparently going to get them. While he lined up in the slot for approximately 95 percent of his plays last season, and was often absent when the team went to two tight ends, Matthews is being given the chance to win a job on the outside this time around.

The truth is that there isn't very much on the roster at the moment to challenge his pairing with Agholor in two-wide-receiver sets, but he's still going to have to get open against starting cornerbacks and not drop the ball. Until he does it, he hasn't done it.

Waiting if he falters are Huff and free-agent signings Chris Givens and Rueben Randle, although none of those three has a resumé that would predict moving to the front of the line by September. As things are now - a long way from September - Matthews would return to the slot in three-wide-receiver sets. It's kind of an odd arrangement and one that could change, but either way, he'd be on the field for more snaps.

"There's always different challenges, but football is football," Matthews said. "Last year, we always did stuff in two-minute mode. Now we're slowed down, and when we're coming out of the huddle, the longer play calls give us more time to assess the situation, do the checks and audibles . . . things that didn't come with the hurry-up offense."

Kelly always said that Matthews' snap percentage (just 79 percent in 2015) was misleading because the Eagles ran so many plays. That's true as far as it goes - Matthews was 25th in the NFL for snap percentage among wide receivers and 19th in actual snaps - but he was still far from getting the opportunities afforded the league's elite. Julio Jones of Atlanta, who led the league with 1,871 receiving yards, for instance, had 120 more snaps than Matthews.

Earning those snaps, and the catches and future earnings they make possible, is the task before Matthews in what could be a pivotal season in his career. Is he going to be one of those receivers, or just one of the others? A lot goes into deciding which it will be, and the guy throwing the ball is far from the least of it.

Matthews had a good rapport with Bradford on the little game of pitch and catch they played last season, but, like a wise teammate, Matthews is content to let the current unsettled quarterback situation proceed without his public input.

"They've been able to put the outside stuff behind them and move forward as teammates," Matthews said of Bradford, Chase Daniel, and rookie Carson Wentz. "The best thing they can do is let the animosity go and practice hard. They have to compete, and that's the best thing they can do, go out and compete."

Judging from the practice sessions open to the media, there isn't that much difference among the quarterbacks, although the setting could hardly be more conducive to completing passes. Daniel doesn't have the arm of the other two, but he has a more thorough understanding of the offense, so perhaps that balances out.

"They all throw catchable balls. There are some minor differences, but it's not just a guy out there throwing heat-seekers and it's like, 'All right, I'm getting ready to dislocate something,' " Matthews said. "There's not really a drop-off whoever it is. Those three are all pros. They all have great arms and it's fun practicing with all three of them."

Fun is allowed in May and June. After next week's mandatory minicamp, the team will break until July 25 and the start of preseason training camp. Then it gets serious. For Jordan Matthews, it is a serious chance to remove the label of being just a slot receiver.

Under Chip Kelly, Matthews thought he should have gotten that chance, but he never did. In 2016, we find out which guy was right.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports