McLane: Eagles must get help at outside receiver

Thirty-two players had more than Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham's combined 72 catches this season. Fifty-two had more than their combined 757 receiving yards. Forty-five had more than their combined four receiving touchdowns.

While the trials and tribulations of the Eagles' starting outside receivers have been fodder for critics all season, those numbers are only meant to further illustrate how much the team needs to upgrade at the position this offseason.

The Eagles know it, the rest of the NFL knows it, and fans know it. It hasn't taken a genius to figure that out, but finding replacements will take foresight, proficiency and maybe even some resourcefulness. Free agency is thin at the position, and the Eagles have several needs to expend another high draft pick on a receiver, which is why a trade may be their best course.

Of course, teams aren't typically willing to part with their talented receivers, either by allowing them to walk into free agency or via trade. But the Eagles have to do something because Agholor (36 catches for 365 yards and two touchdowns) and Green-Beckham (36 catches for 392 yards and two touchdowns), despite their relative youth, did little to suggest that either is capable of becoming an impact receiver.

Carson Wentz doesn't necessarily need a Julio Jones-type, bona fide No. 1 receiver on the outside. But the quarterback needs more than what he had in his rookie season. He needs a receiver who can stretch the field, or get separation at the top of his routes, or out-physical cornerbacks - or all of the above.

"I thought we did a good job of spreading the ball around," Wentz said Monday, a day after the Eagles ended the season 7-9. "I think that was kind of part of the game plan going into the season. We have a number of weapons that can get the job done, so we looked for mismatches."

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Exploiting mismatches is what any good offense does, but too often the Eagles were on the other side of that coin, or there simply was little margin either way. With some receivers, there simply is never a mismatch. "Even when he's covered he's open," as the old adage goes.

"That's always helpful," Wentz said, "but at the end of the day we were very confident with the guys we had."

Jordan Matthews and Zach Ertz are two weapons, but neither took the significant step up this season that many had forecasted. Some of their struggles were related to a new scheme, new play caller and new quarterback, and both missed two games to injury, but the slot receiver and tight end weren't at their best when needed most.

Matthews finished the season with 73 catches for 804 yards and three touchdowns, but he was on pace to eclipsed his career bests in catches and yards before he suffered an ankle injury against the Packers in late November.

The 24-year-old receiver will definitely return for a fourth season, but will he come back with a new contract in hand? The Eagles and Matthews were officially permitted to negotiate an extension on Monday, but he said that he had yet to be approached.

He declined to say whether he would be more inclined to opt for the insurance of a long-term deal vs. rolling the dice into his fourth season.

"I don't feel like . . . the team got to see everything that I truly got better at a consistent level moving from second year to my third year," Matthews said on locker clean-out day. "So I think that's one thing obviously that I was upset about that."

Matthews played more on the outside this season, but Eagles coach Doug Pederson said last month that he still envisioned him primarily in the slot. He is a good receiver, but there were too many missed opportunities to say that he is yet great. But the potential remains.

Ertz obviously doesn't qualify as a receiver, although he may be the best pass catching tight end the Eagles have had in decades. He has become Mr. December, but unfortunately the last month of the season for the Eagles over the last two seasons has meant little in regards to the postseason.

"I was promised 16 games," Ertz said after Sunday's game. "For each and every NFL season, each game is just as important to me whether it's in September or January."

Nevertheless, Ertz caught 40 passes for 433 yards and three touchdowns in his last five games. He seemed particularly motivated after the catch than he did before public criticism he faced when he ducked a block in the Bengals game. Ertz averaged 2.3 yards after the catch in his first 10 games compared with 5.0 yards in his last four.

If Ertz can have similar production over an entire season, his numbers at least would place him among the best at his position. He, too, will return in 2017 after signing a five-year extension last offseason, but that still leaves the Eagles short two receivers on the outside.

The Eagles would have to eat almost $5 million in dead money if they decided to release Agholor this offseason. The former first-round pick didn't show any noticeable improvement in his second season. He was plagued by drops, other mental errors and was benched for a game following a crisis of confidence.

"It was a great experience to grow and get better," Agholor said. He added when asked about the offseason: "I'm just going to grind, come back better than I left."

Releasing Green-Beckham, who was acquired via preseason trade, wouldn't cost the Eagles a dime. But they still need bodies, and his is big. But Green-Beckham did little to suggest that he will ever grow into it.

The Eagles will evaluate both this week, but it shouldn't take long to come to the conclusion that neither is starting-caliber.

Now the hard part.

jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane