The Eagles are amid their first organized team activities this week, and they will practice throughout the next four weeks. After those practices, Chip Kelly will have a better idea of the Eagles roster. But there’s a lot that will happen between now and then.
To get you up to date, The Inquirer is spending two weeks assessing where the Eagles stand at each spot. Jeff McLane started on Monday with offensive line.
Here are wide receivers:
Projected current first team
WR1: Jeremy Maclin (6-0, 198, age 25, 5th season)
WR2: DeSean Jackson (5-10, 175, age 26, 6th season)
WR3: Jason Avant (6-0, 212, age 30, 8th season)
Let’s focus on Maclin and Jackson, because that’s where the bulk of attention should be allocated. The Eagles need that tandem to be one of the best in the NFL, and that simply hasn’t been the case.
Maclin has the potential to be a Pro Bowl receiver, but there’s been an issue in each of his four seasons. He’s had games where he’s appeared to be the dynamic player, but there have also been bouts on injuries and inconsistencies. In four seasons, the 2009 first-round pick has not eclipsed the 1,000-yard plateau. That’s alarming.
He probably would have reached that total in 2011 (859 yards in 13 games) if he played three more games, and last year he initially struggled with Nick Foles (a total of eight catches for 93 yards in Foles’ first three starts) before emerging in the final four weeks. Those last four games were promising, with 25 catches for 315 yards and three touchdowns. Now it’s a new offense, and he’ll need to be a major contributor. It’s a contract year for Maclin, and he goes into the season without a long-term deal. His performance – and his future in Philadelphia – will be an intriguing subplot to the season. He needs to stay healthy, improve his blocking, and be more consistent. But the talent is certainly there.
Then there’s Jackson, whose receiving numbers have declined in each of the past three seasons. He was on pace for a strong season last year before broken ribs halted his season in the 11th game. At that point, he caught 45 passes for 700 yards and two touchdowns. Jackson seems to be a player who can especially benefit from Kelly’s arrival, simply because of the different ways Kelly can use a player like Jackson. If Jackson stays healthy, look for his total touches to increase – whether it’s screen passes, running plays, and punt returns.
A key number for Jackson will be total touchdowns. He had 12 in 2009 and eight in 2010, but only six total during the past two seasons. If he can increase that into the 8-10 range, it will be considered a strong season. He indicated that he will return punts, and the Eagles need to maximize his skill set. He can be one of the most explosive players in the NFL if used correctly.
As for Avant, he’s a wild card at this position, because he can be anything from a regular contributor to even slipping down the depth chart. Avant offers reliable hands, good special teams play, and a solid locker room presence. He’s a skilled slot receiver, which is an important role on a team. But he’s not fast for the position, he’s 30-years old and he’s earning $2 million this season.
This is one of those cases to watch during training camp and the preseason. He’s been productive (50+ catches the past three seasons), but he was also someone that Andy Reid especially valued. His intangibles, special teams play, and hands are hard to find elsewhere. But rumor has it that Kelly cares about speed. And age matters at this position.
Riley Cooper (6-3, 222, age 25, 4th season)
Arrelious Benn (6-2, 220, age 24, 4th season)
Damaris Johnson (5-8, 175, age 23, 2nd season)
Let’s start with Cooper and Benn, because at least one of them will make the team – although they might both me competing for the same spot. They’re both bigger wide receivers that can block and play special teams. Those are skills that valued by Chip Kelly. Cooper has 46 total catches in three years, and the former fifth-round pick’s biggest contributions have come on special teams.
The acquisition of Benn is an interesting wrinkle. The Eagles added him for a small price (exchanging a sixth-round pick for a seventh-round pick, basically), although Benn was one of the top receivers in the 2010 draft. He’s had spurts of production during his three seasons, but injuries have been the biggest issue with him. He had 30 catches for 441 yards and three touchdowns in 2011. He recorded just four catches last season and has not played 16 games in his three-year career.
There’s nothing guaranteed with Benn, although there’s upside. He took snaps with the first-team offense during Monday’s practice, and the Eagles will try to maximize that upside. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s on the roster and a contributor if he’s healthy. But he must prove he can stay healthy. There’s no way around that issue.
As for Johnson, he was a promising player during the preseason last year. He’s small, but Kelly found a way to use players like Johnson during his time at Oregon. Johnson’s versatility is a benefit. There’s some duplication with what he could potentially do and what Jackson does, and the former undrafted free agent did not do enough as a returner last year to lock down that job. He’ll be intriguing to watch.
Cooper, Benn, and Johnson have all been contributing NFL players. That’s why they’re in this tier. Plus, the Eagles did not draft a wide receiver. But each of these players has something to prove, and Kelly can also use tight ends such as James Casey and Zach Ertz in the slot and split wide, so the tight ends could take time away from this group of receivers.
B.J Cunningham (6-2, 215, 23, 1st season); Nick Miller (5-9, 180, 26, 4th season); Ifeanyi Momah (6-6, 229, 23, rookie season); Will Murphy (6-2 193, 22, rookie season); Greg Salas (6-1, 209, 24, 4th season); Russell Shepard (6-1, 195, 22, rookie season)
Most players on the list are potential practice squad options, and could secure a roster spot if they either excel or there’s a major injury bug. Miller has special teams experience, although he’s similar to Johnson. Cunningham and Momah offer size. I know there’s intrigue from fans about Momah, but let’s see if he’s healthy and if he can play. Salas is an option in the slot. Shepard’s calling card is his versatility, and he will try to make the team as a do-it-all type who can contribute on special teams, play receiver, running back, or even a Wildcat-type quarterback threat. Murphy played for Kelly at Oregon and earned a contract during a tryout.
Contact Zach Berman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @ZBerm.