Alshon Jeffery's surgery should make a very good Eagles receiving corps even better | Eagles offseason preview

Alshon Jeffery exults after catching a touchdown pass.

This is one in a series of stories from the Inquirer and Daily News Eagles beat reporters previewing the Eagles’ offseason. Free agency will begin on March 14, and the NFL draft will be April 26-28.

Schedule of previews:

Tuesday, Feb. 20: Quarterbacks/specialists

Wednesday, Feb. 21: Offensive line

Thursday, Feb. 22: Running backs

Friday, Feb. 23: Wide receivers/tight ends

Monday, Feb. 26: Defensive line

Tuesday, Feb. 27: Linebackers

Wednesday, Feb. 28: Cornerbacks

Thursday, March 1: Safeties

Wide receivers

Under contract

Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, Torrey Smith, Mack Hollins, Shelton Gibson, Marcus Johnson.

The Eagles’ wide-receiver corps went from one of the team’s least productive units in 2016 to one of its most productive last season. There were three reasons for that: the hiring of wide receivers coach Mike Groh, the free-agent signings of Jeffery and Smith, and the emergence of 2015 first-round pick Agholor.

After getting the Eagles’ head-coaching job in 2016, Doug Pederson hired former player Greg Lewis to coach the team’s wide receivers. That didn’t work out very well. The Eagles’ wideouts caught just eight touchdown passes in 2016, and Pederson wisely fired Lewis and replaced him with Groh. Under Groh, Eagles wideouts caught 20 TD passes last season, including 12 in the red zone.

Jeffery became an invaluable pass-catching weapon for both Carson Wentz and Nick Foles because of his ability to win 50-50 balls and his impressive production in the red zone, despite, as we found out earlier this week, the fact that he played the entire season with a torn rotator cuff.

He had a team-high nine touchdown catches, including a career-best seven in the red zone. Forty-four of his 57 receptions went for first downs. Jeffery, who signed a four-year, $52.2 million contract extension with the Eagles in early December, probably will be sidelined until the start of the regular season, but should make a complete recovery.

Agholor struggled in his first two seasons with the Eagles, catching just 59 passes and three touchdowns. When the Eagles signed Jeffery and Smith last March, it appeared Agholor’s days with the Eagles were numbered.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Nelson Agholor, left, is tackled after a catch against the Falcons.

But when slot receiver Jordan Matthews missed most of the spring workouts with knee issues, Agholor was moved inside and everything changed. Matthews eventually was traded to Buffalo for cornerback Ronald Darby, and Agholor became one of the league’s most productive slot receivers, catching 62 passes, eight for touchdowns. He led the team in third-down receptions with 21 and receptions of 20 or more yards (9). He had a team-high nine catches in the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory over the Patriots, including five for first downs.

A year ago, the chances of Agholor ever signing a second contract with the Eagles seemed somewhere between slim and none. Now, he’s one of their key offensive players.

The Eagles used three-wide-receiver personnel groupings more than 65 percent of the time last season, and that number isn’t expected to shrink anytime soon. But Pederson and Groh, who has replaced Frank Reich as offensive coordinator, have hinted that they want to move Agholor around more next season, which means the Eagles could be in the market for another slot receiver in free agency or the draft. They also have two 2017 draft picks with inside-outside versatility – Hollins and Gibson — they’re high on. The 6-4, 221-pound Hollins played nearly 300 offensive snaps this season and had 16 catches. Gibson came to the Eagles with a big-play reputation, but struggled to get his arms around Pederson’s offense after playing in a basic spread offense at West Virginia. He should benefit greatly from his first NFL offseason.

Roster decision

Torrey Smith

Smith had a productive postseason, catching 10 passes in the Eagles’ wins over the Vikings and the Patriots. But he had just 36 catches and two touchdowns in the regular season.

Just 11 of his 36 catches resulted in first downs. Smith was supposed to give the Eagles a vertical threat. But they seldom targeted him on deep routes after the first five games. He was targeted just five times on throws of 20 or more yards in the final 11 regular-season games. He caught just one of those five passes.

Camera icon YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Torrey Smith running with the ball against the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Smith is a tremendous team player and a valuable locker-room presence. But he has a $5 million cap number in 2018. His willingness to take a pay cut, along with the Eagles’ desire to get Hollins more playing time, will be the key factors in whether he stays or goes.

Free-agent options

Three years ago, Jacksonville’s Allen Robinson caught 80 passes for 1,400 yards and 14 TDs. He is big (6-3, 221) and he is fast and it’s difficult to believe the Jaguars will let him make it to free agency. But he is coming off an ACL tear. If the Jaguars don’t re-sign him, it’s because his price tag is too high. And if it’s too high for them, then it likely will be too high for the cap-strapped Eagles.

The Colts’ Donte Moncrief is only 24. The 6-2, 221-pounder had five red-zone TD catches in 2015 and six more in 2016. He was hurt much of last year. A couple of the other interesting potential free-agent wideouts: Seattle’s Paul Richardson and Arizona’s John Brown.

Draft options

If the Eagles are serious about moving Agholor around, they could be shopping for a slot receiver in the draft. One guy who would be a pretty good fit for them is Maryland’s D.J. Moore. Moore, a Philly kid from Imhotep Charter, caught 80 passes for the Terps last season from four – count ‘em, four — quarterbacks. But scouts are projecting that Moore will go somewhere in the third round and the Eagles are without a second- or third-round pick. Some wideouts who could be on the board in the fourth round: Penn State’s DaeSean Hamilton, Central Florida’s TreQuan Smith, Missouri’s JMon Moore and Iowa State’s Allen Lazard.

Tight ends

Under contract

Zach Ertz, Brent Celek, Billy Brown

Ertz had his third straight season with 70-plus catches and 800-plus receiving yards. But he also had a career-high eight touchdown receptions as he established himself as one of the league’s top pass-catching tight ends and earned his first Pro Bowl invitation.

All eight of his TD catches came in the red zone. Only the Seahawks’ Jimmy Graham (10) and the Dolphins’ Jarvis Landry (9) had more red-zone TD receptions.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Zach Ertz getting congratulated by teammates after scoring the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.

He had 15 catches in the Eagles’ playoff wins over the Vikings and Patriots. Ten of those 15 catches resulted in first downs. Nine of them were on third down. Eight of those nine third-down catches went for first downs.

It seems unlikely that Trey Burton will be back. He is an unrestricted free agent whose pass-catching skills and special-teams prowess should draw some attractive offers on the open market.

Burton played just 21 percent of the Eagles’ offensive snaps in the playoffs and had only one catch. Brown, an undrafted rookie who spent the season on the team’s practice squad, has shown a lot of promise.

Celek turned 33 last month. He has played just 40 percent of the offensive snaps the last two years and had a career-low 13 receptions in 2017. He still is one of the league’s better blocking tight ends, as he showed on LeGarrette Blount’s 21-yard touchdown run in the Super Bowl. He epitomizes everything the Eagles want their franchise to stand for. He is a warrior who has missed just one game in 11 pro seasons, If he wants to return for one more season, the Eagles almost certainly would be willing to accommodate him, albeit at a reduced price (his 2018 cap number is $5 million). But there’s a good possibility he’ll retire.

Roster decisions

Trey Burton, Brent Celek

Burton has been one of the Eagles’ top special-teams players. His role in the “Philly Special’’ pretty much assures that he’ll never have to buy another drink in this city as long as he lives. But the Eagles have to make some difficult salary-cap decisions this offseason and they really can’t afford to overpay a No. 2 tight end who played just 21 percent of the offensive snaps in the postseason.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Brent Celek getting knocked out of bounds by the Cowboys’ Xavier Woods in November.

As far as Celek is concerned, he is revered by the organization. They feel he has earned the right to go out on his terms. But given their tenuous cap situation, they can’t afford his $5 million cap number. It would have to come down if he wants to play here another year.

Free-agent options

Don’t look for the Eagles to sign the Seahawks’ Graham or the Bengals’ Tyler Eifert if they make it to the free-agent market. Graham is 31, and Eifert has played just 10 games the last two years because of injury issues.

One guy who might, but probably won’t, interest them is the Bucs’ Cameron Brate. The 6-5, 235-pound Brate is just 27 and has 14 touchdown catches the last two years, 13 of them in the red zone.

If they like Billy Brown as much as I think they do, they’ll probably just add an inexpensive blocking tight end if Celek retires.

Draft options

The Eagles own the last pick in the first round and no selections in the second or third rounds. My suspicion is they will try to trade the 32nd pick for a pair of Day 2 picks. But that probably wouldn’t happen until they’re on the clock on draft night.

If they stay at 32 or trade down into the second round, might they consider taking a tight end such as Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews or South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert or South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst? Anything’s possible, but it’s not probable given the the presence of Ertz.

A more likely scenario is that they take one on Day 3 (Miami’s Christopher Herndon? Notre Dame’s Durham Smythe? UMass’s Adam Breneman?)