Ford: Eagles need Givens to catch on as wide receiver

Eagles receiver Chris Givens catches a pass during practice at the NovaCare Complex on May 31, 2016.

The Eagles conclude the spring portion of their offseason practices and workouts Thursday when the mandatory minicamp ends, and everyone departs having agreed it went great.

That is the recurring theme around the NovaCare Complex since Doug Pederson replaced Chip Kelly. Things are great and, with the regular season still three months away, there's no sense in dwelling on the fact that greatness is a relative term, particularly in the NFL.

It is a time of quiet optimism instead, even if it would also be optimistic to predict the team will win more than half its games this season. We'll leave that for another time.

One area where the Eagles are professing a lot of confidence - without a great deal of visible foundation - is that the receiving corps will be greatly improved. Maybe some of that is based on the three-headed quarterback monster, all of whom are drawing praise, and maybe some is based on the feeling that the receivers have to be better than last season, when they were all either young, fumbled-fingered or Riley Cooper.

If you look at it, however, Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor and Josh Huff are pretty much the same guys. Veteran free agent signings Rueben Randle and T.J. Graham are also in the mix, but the most intriguing receiver on the roster has been Chris Givens, another who arrived in free agency.

Givens has burning speed and gives the Eagles a true deep threat they haven't had since DeSean Jackson's departure. During the offseason workouts, he has shown the ability to stretch and break a defense.

The problem is that Givens has always had that ability, and he still didn't become a star, or even a regular player for much of his four-season career. He was a rookie along with Sam Bradford in St. Louis and had his most productive season but has slid ever since. Traded to Baltimore during last season, he was little more than an afterthought.

Givens knows he is fast, but he also knows now that alone isn't enough.

"My whole mantra is to come out and prove everybody wrong. I want to show that I can do more than just go deep," Givens said. "I want to prove I can be a complete receiver and play every down and run all the routes. I think I handcuffed myself because I was young and had success early and thought it was always going to happen. I didn't necessarily work as hard. I had to look at myself in the mirror and said, 'All right, Chris. This is what you need to do, and if you don't you're not going to get what you want.' "

At 6-foot and 200 pounds, Givens needed to get stronger so he could get off the line and get into his routes. Defensive backs muscled him, and he couldn't fight through. After a pretty decent rookie year with Bradford (42 catches, 698 yards, 3 touchdowns), he struggled badly the following season. Of the 56 receivers who were targeted 80 or more times, he was dead-last in reception percentage, catching just 34 of the 83 targeted passes. He was ignored in the Rams' offense the following season, then traded last year.

"I learned the hard way, and that's on the field," Givens said. "Once you go back and reevaluate yourself and be critical of yourself, you come to the crossroad. I'm either going to be like everyone says I am or I'm going to do what I can do."

Givens sought advice from former receiver Isaac Bruce and current NFL star Antonio Brown, neither of whom is very big. But he really took to heart what he learned from Hall of Fame defensive back Aeneas Williams, who has been a mentor.

"The guys on the other side of the ball get paid, too. Once they realize this guy can only do this, they start playing you differently. I was like, 'Oh, what am I going to do now?' " Givens said. Williams "went against great receivers, and he told me what made them great. He told me [if he were covering me], he'd get physical on me at the line of scrimmage, sit on all my routes. I couldn't do the things it took to get open fast, like I can now."

If Givens can really make the transition from one-dimensional to multi-dimensional, then, yes, the receiving corps might really be improved over last season. If there is reason for optimism, he might be a big part of it.

"He has top-of-the-line speed, but he's really been working on his routes," quarterback Chase Daniel said. "He's become one of our better route runners. Receivers have to catch the ball and have some speed. Chris has both of those, but there are different ways to use that speed, different facets. He's becoming a well-rounded receiver for us."

Three months from now, that assessment might hold up, or it might be forgotten. That's the lesson of spring practices. Even when everything goes great, you still never know. Chris Givens could be a difference maker for this team, or he could disappear. Either way, when the games get serious, the answer, like the player himself, will arrive very quickly.