Agholor sounds ready to shake off his struggles

THE CONSEQUENCES of the latest gambit in the Nelson Agholor saga might indeed be beneficial but wholly unintended.

Seldom do the ranks of professional sports feature an athlete more eager for approval than Agholor, the Eagles' embattled wide receiver whose chronic case of performance anxiety finally got him benched Monday night against the Packers. A starter since he was drafted in the first round last year, Agholor last week was humiliated by a week playing on the scout team. He learned Sunday from coach Doug Pederson that he would be deactivated Monday night. Agholor then spent three days trapped by replays of his misplays: dropped passes, botched alignments, blown routes.

In the middle of it all, he was thrown an unexpected lifeline.

He received about a dozen handwritten letters of encouragement from the very fans his poor play betrayed.

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Should Nelson Agholor return this weekend?

In a world plagued with anonymous digital criticism, this collection of personal analog sympathy helped bring him peace.

"To be honest with you, I actually received some notes from some fans," he said, his voice rising with lingering surprise. "Great support. Whoever wrote me those notes - and I don't know them personally - I really appreciate it. People care."

He sounded calmer than he has in . . . well, ever.

Agholor was the first player Chip Kelly drafted after his front-office coup in January 2015. In his first two seasons, Kelly had let dynamic receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin go, so Agholor faced incredible expectations as a replacement. He has failed to meet those expectations: He has 50 catches for 547 yards and two touchdowns in 23 games. He has never caught more than four passes in a game, nor has he gained more than 64 receiving yards in a game. His pedestrian production magnified his frequent drops.

Always high-strung, after a loss Oct. 30 at Dallas, Agholor erupted with a vulgar tirade that defended both his own drops and those of his teammates. Three weeks later, after a loss in Seattle in which he committed a killer penalty just before a crucial drop, Agholor acknowledged he had to "get out of my own head," was trying to be "perfect" and was in the midst of a "mental battle."

Pederson benched him.

Is that battle won?

"I'm not a therapist," Agholor said, "and I'm not a coach."

When he recites his mantras, it's clear he has been counseled by plenty of both.

"Right now, it's all about just living in the moment," he said. "I have to enjoy those moments every time I step on the field. God gave me great abilities. I'm in a position where I have to take advantage of it."

Pederson said Wednesday he wants Agholor to "play like you're playing that route for us, as if it were a service-team rep . . . where you're not thinking, you're just going and reacting to what the defense or the offense presents. That's how Nelson needs to attack this."

It sounds as though Pederson believes Agholor is winning his mental battle. Or, maybe it's just that Pederson has no choice. Jordan Matthews sprained his right ankle Monday night, missed most of the second half and missed practice Wednesday, which conveniently opened a spot for Agholor to practice with the starters.

Matthews will play Sunday, Pederson said, but to what effect? Consider, too, that Agholor's replacements, undrafted rookie replacements Bryce Treggs and Paul Turner, combined for one 11-yard catch Monday night.

Agholor at least averages two.

And it's not as though Agholor has hit his NFL ceiling.

It was obvious to anyone watching that Agholor simply needs to relax. He was a fluid, quicksilver receiver at USC who relied on natural ability. He was raw when he landed in the NFL, and heavily coached. Now, every step of every route in the seems premeditated and mechanical; every catch, robotic.

For some players, function trumps form. He seems to be realizing that.

"You have to make sure you have fun every opportunity you get to play," Agholor said.

Packers receiver Davante Adams seems to follow that philosophy. Agholor said he watched Adams on Monday night. Adams, a second-round pick in 2014, is breaking out in his third season, with 58 catches for 776 yards and eight touchdowns, including two Monday night. He's on pace for 84 catches, 1,128 yards and 11 TDs, numbers that sent teammate Randall Cobb to the Pro Bowl after the 2014 season.

"He competed for every ball, and he had fun," Agholor said, implying that perhaps Agholor himself did not always compete, or have fun.

Agholor might never be an All-Pro, but he probably has a better chance than Treggs and Turner.

"My team needs me, and I want to be there for my team," Agholor said.

So do a handful of letter-writing fans.


hayesm@phillynews.com

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