EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Over the last several months, the Eagles have tossed tests at their wide receivers so challenging that it would have been impossible for them not to have identified the cream of the crop.
They hired tough-minded taskmaster Mike Groh to head the unit. They signed two notable free agents and drafted two rookies. They held weeks of drills so intense that even the simple act of catching an uncontested pass occasionally proved difficult.
And the Eagles’ coup de grâce: Having Matt McGloin at quarterback.
In a day, several on-the-bubble receivers will learn their fate for the coming season. Most won’t make the Eagles’ 53-man roster when Saturday’s 4 p.m. deadline arrives. One or two might. In both cases, they won’t have to worry about having McGloin or Dane Evans throw errantly in their direction any more.
The Eagles tied a bow on their preseason on Thursday night at MetLife Stadium, losing to the New York Jets, 16-10. As far as fourth preseasons games go, it was as forgettable as Tim Tebow’s last game in midnight green. But there were jobs on the line and quite possibly at receiver.
Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and Nelson Agholor – atop the depth chart – were given the night off along with 33 other regulars. Mack Hollins played because of numbers, but the fourth-round rookie will be on the “final” roster.
That left Marcus Johnson, Bryce Treggs, Shelton Gibson, Greg Ward and Rashad Davis to compete for one or two roster crumbs. Of the five, Johnson would appear to have the greatest odds of landing the fifth receiver spot. He tailed off after a strong summer start, but he maintained his spot on the second team even after a mid-camp hamstring injury.
Treggs would seem to be the most likely sixth receiver, if the Eagles keep as many. Depth or a lack thereof at other positions could factor into his future. Gibson, despite his fifth-round pedigree, is likely destined for the practice squad.
“I thought Bryce bounced back and had a pretty good game,” coach Doug Pederson said. “Greg Ward is another one who’s been working. It was good, really, to get them all some touches, some opportunities in this game. But I really thought Bryce did a nice job.”
A year ago, the Eagles had to trade for Dorial Green-Beckham just before the preseason and pluck Treggs off waivers a week before the season to fill out the position. Having game-changers was of secondary consideration.
But the unit underwent a metamorphosis this offseason. No one expects the Eagles’ receivers to develop into the second coming of the “Smurfs,” but Jeffery is a legitimate No. 1 option on the outside, Smith is a veteran with a track record and gas in the tank, and Agholor … well, he supposedly had a good camp.
Agholor’s practices were good enough for the Eagles to trade Jordan Matthews. The idea of parting with the slot receiver this time a year ago would have been unfathomable. It still is considering how much faith the team is placing in Agholor. But the Eagles were light at cornerback – again – and felt they had enough depth at receiver.
The offense does have enough inside depth. Tight end Zach Ertz and running back Darren Sproles will likely assume the bulk of Matthews’ 73 catches from a year ago and of Carson Wentz’s safety blanket throws. Tight end Trey Burton could be a factor out of the slot, as well.
Hollins never quite made an impression as strong as his first catch in his first game, when he caught a Wentz pass over the middle and stiffed armed two Packers on the way to a 38-yard touchdown. But he’s significantly more polished than his fellow rookies and will be a core special team contributor.
Johnson and McGloin failed to hook up on three first-half pass attempts – all of them erratically thrown by the quarterback. But the second-year receiver, who spent most of last season on the Eagles’ practice squad, hit pay dirt in the fourth quarter when Evans scrambled and found the streaking Johnson for a 41-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
Treggs was featured throughout, just as he was in Green Bay three weeks ago. But after catching three passes for 22 yards in the first quarter, he never caught another. Treggs notched seven receptions for 91 yards against the Packers — after a strong first two weeks of camp – but a calf injury sidelined the speedy receiver for most of the next two weeks.
“I had a lot of momentum going off the practice weeks and that game,” Treggs said, “But I don’t think that set me back at all. The coaches actually told me to take my time getting back.”
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman may try and get something for Treggs before final trims, but teams still have film of last season when he did little in nine active games. He exploded out of the gate – pulling in a 58-yard bomb from Wentz against the Giants – but that would be his lone highlight.
Gibson, whose speed Roseman and the Eagles had gushed over after the draft, had struggled from his first practice. Drops were plentiful, even when the lone distraction was Groh waving a foamy yellow baton in the receiver’s direction.
The West Virginia product did settle down by mid-camp. But he never made a push up the depth chart. Gibson followed Hollins, Johnson and Treggs onto the field against the Jets. He had a few moments, once snagging a 14-yard pass after a button-hook route and a 30-yard crosser.
“I was just trying to go out there and have a good game in my last audition,” Gibson said. “I had a lot of mental errors so I don’t think I had a great game.”
His troubles against man defense continued. McGloin once threw to a covered Gibson and the receiver turned cornerback as the ball sailed wide. Despite the many challenges the Eagles threw at their receivers, playing another position was not one of them.