Updated: Saturday, December 2, 2017, 8:05 PM
Nelson Agholor hangs a whiteboard in his locker stall. Every day during the spring, he read a message to himself: When change is necessary, not to change is destructive.
The evidence of the change Agholor has undergone since last year will be apparent on Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. He’ll arrive at the stadium Sunday afternoon and see the 43-yard line. Last November, in the second quarter of the Eagles’ 26-15 loss to the Seahawks, Agholor failed to line up at that line on a play. He was one foot off, resulting in a penalty and negating a 57-yard touchdown by Zach Ertz that would have given the Eagles the lead. One drive later, a wide-open Agholor dropped a pass. He grabbed his helmet in disgust, suffering a crisis of confidence that prompted coach Doug Pederson to bench him the next game.
“At the end of the day, I left that game and felt I showed a sign of defeat I didn’t need to,” Agholor said this past week. “Yeah, you made mistakes. You’ve got to be tough. …You can bounce back. You’re tough. And you’re made for that.”
One year later, it’s hard to believe it’s the same player. Through 11 games, Agholor already has 33 catches for 458 yards and six touchdowns. Make it seven scores if you include his fumble recovery touchdown last week. The former first-round pick has proven to be one of the Eagles’ most dynamic offensive players, with touchdowns of 72 yards and 58 yards. And a player whose future with the Eagles once seemed uncertain now appears to be a potential building block on offense.
“It could have gone one of two ways: He could have gone in the dumps and you never would have heard from him again … or he did what he does, which is work his butt off and try to excel and do everything right,” Ertz said. “It’s obviously paying off.”
Needing to change
Agholor saw Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin at a wedding during the spring. Martin gave him the advice that Agholor wrote on the whiteboard: When change is necessary, not to change is destructive. Agholor took it to heart, noting that he couldn’t act as if everything was fine after last season. That would be destructive.
“Obviously, things aren’t going well for a reason,” Agholor said in June. “So you’ve got to find change.”
It would have been easier to find an easy fix for Agholor if he didn’t work hard enough or didn’t care enough. But that was never the problem. Agholor is a Nigerian immigrant who moved to the United States when he was 5. His family arrived in New York and settled in Tampa, Fla. His mother, Caroline, worked at a nursing home. His father, Felix, worked many jobs, including as a janitor at the University of South Florida. Felix rode his bike to work each morning before he could afford a car.
“I think I understand the way life works,” Agholor said on draft weekend. “I don’t feel like I’m entitled to anything. … Work like a peasant. That’s the mind-set.”
Before his rookie season, his bedtime routine included setting his alarm for 5:30 a.m. and scheduling a taxi to pick him up at the team hotel at 6 a.m. so he could arrive at work at 6:15, a full hour before the rookie schedule began. That was Agholor’s time to work on his own. Even now, in his third season, teammates marvel at how early Agholor arrives. They compare it to Carson Wentz’s routine.
Agholor’s problems were mental as much as anything. He needed to discover his confidence. He returned to Tampa to work with his trainer, Yo Murphy, a former NFL receiver. And the message was to slow down his brain, to rely on his athletic gifts.
“I have a whole lot of fun when I play fast,” Agholor said. “Every time something special happens to me, I play very fast.”
Agholor has improved his conditioning and he’s dropping fewer passes. He has benefited from playing in the slot after the Eagles traded Jordan Matthews. So there have been physical improvements. But he most appreciates his “ability to shake things off,” to not let a past play affect the next play. He realized that when he’s stuck in the moment, he doesn’t go as fast.
“I’ll tell you the difference is as a rookie, I got so caught into result, result, result, now, now, now,” Agholor said. “The opportunity and the moment meant a certain situation. So when things were going poorly…I felt I did get flustered.”
Change was necessary, after all. Not changing would have been destructive.
“He came back in the spring with a different mentality,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “I saw that immediately. …That was the biggest thing for me, was his confidence.”
Push from Jenkins
Jenkins struck Agholor’s face mask during intense one-on-one drills in training camp. Jenkins, a defensive leader, has challenged Agholor since the receiver arrived in Philadelphia in 2015. He picked an August practice to try to get under Agholor’s skin.
The Eagles signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith to be starting receivers in March. They still had Matthews, their leading receiver, playing the slot. Agholor reported to the offseason program effectively as a backup. It became more apparent with each practice that the Eagles needed him on the field. When they traded Matthews, a top-three receiver spot opened for Agholor.
With Agholor in his new role, Jenkins faced him in practice. And Jenkins thought he knew how to push his teammate.
“I saw an opportunity for him,” Jenkins said. “You brought in Alshon, Torrey, now you lose Jordan, and that slot position was wide open. Even though he’s a first-round pick, I felt like this year, at the beginning of the year, he was in competition to make the team. So I saw an opportunity for him to get better and take hold of that spot. But since he’s gotten here, I feel he’s been our most talented receiver, when you talk about flat talent. He just hasn’t performed up to par. In order for us to win games, I knew we’d have to get the best out of him.”
On the very first play of the season, Agholor caught a 58-yard touchdown pass. Playing in the slot has allowed him to take advantage of his quickness and run-after-catch ability. His flexibility to move outside has offered more versatility for the offense. And improved conditioning keeps Agholor fresh and precise. He ran a team-high 1,231.9 yards during last week’s game, according to the NFL’s Next Gen stats.
Don’t discount the arrival of new wide receivers coach Mike Groh, either. Groh’s influence was cited by others as a reason for improvement, and Agholor said he welcomed tough coaching. When Agholor first spoke to Groh, he asked what he must improve. Groh told Agholor his stance. By focusing on the proper foot alignment and the correct crouch, Agholor is more explosive off the ball.
Altogether, it has unlocked Agholor’s talent in a way that wasn’t seen the last two years.
“I think Nelson is mentally tough,” Groh said. “He’s certainly very skillful. And he set out with a plan and he’s executed his plan each and every day, whether it be Monday or Friday or Sunday. He has a routine he goes through and he doesn’t deviate from it.”
Back to Seattle. It was the scene of the lowest point in Agholor’s career. But when he reviewed that film, he didn’t focus on the miscues that most remember. He sees routes that he won – there was one when he turned all-pro safety Earl Thomas– and realizes there’s value in those, too.
“What I learned is when the football game is going on, I just need to keep on playing,” Agholor said. “When something happens in a football game, you can’t let that moment define you. Because you have more opportunities.”
He didn’t let that moment define him. Pederson, who scouted Agholor out of Southern California, reminded the receiver of his college days. “This is the guy that you are and you can be,” Pederson said.
The Eagles wanted to invest in Agholor. They didn’t consider moving on from him. His one-game benching was intended to let Agholor take a step back and clear his head. Pederson has since cited Agholor as a success story with struggling players.
“It was definitely big on both our parts because it was the first time I’ve really had to sort of bench a player for the performance or whatever or just the sort of the slump that he was in,” Pederson said. “It was a wake-up call I think for him, but he embraced it the right way. … A lot more confident when he came out of it, and really from that point on, even the last couple games of the season, began to play like the Nelson Agholor we thought we had.”
Agholor said that if he could speak to his younger self, he would point out the good routes and tell him there are more opportunities. And the pass he just dropped, he’ll catch next time. He’ll tell him that “you can’t let that hurt you two more quarters from now.”
Change was necessary, and Agholor thinks that moment in Seattle was “great” for his career. It built thicker skin. He knows how to deal with those situations. And maybe he won’t have them anymore because of it.
“It all changed when I told myself I’m not going to be denied,” Agholor said. “And I’m not done yet. That’s the thing.”