Nelson Agholor’s rise from two years of disappointment to becoming one of the most vital cogs in the Eagles offense didn’t begin with the regular season, and it didn’t begin in training camp.
Way back in the spring, when Agholor took most of the snaps at the slot position while Jordan Matthews was out with an injury, was when the coaches started to look at each other and go, “Hmm.”
The addition of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith made it obvious that Agholor would not be needed as a wideout in the 2017 offense, so what was to become of him? It could have been that he would have gotten some snaps here and there on the outside, or joined the formation in four-receiver sets, but that was probably the extent of it. Matthews had been on the field in the slot for nearly 75 percent of the snaps in 2016 and had become not only the favorite receiver of Carson Wentz but a close friend as well.
That pecking order was set until training camp proved that the cornerback position needed immediate help and the solution was to trade Matthews to Buffalo for Ronald Darby, who is now the starting cornerback opposite Jalen Mills. The team might have had to roll the dice with that trade in any case, but the coaches were comfortable with the switch only because Agholor had been opening their eyes since mini-camp.
Of all the moves the team made leading to this season, and there were a ton of them, the addition of Darby at the expense of Matthews, and the repositioning of Agholor turned out to be as important as any.
After seasons in which Agholor caught 23 and 36 passes, lived through some off-the-field turmoil, and needed to be benched for a game to clear his head, there wasn’t much to predict his ascension this season. But there’s no denying it now.
Agholor caught 62 passes for 768 yards in the regular season, including eight touchdown receptions. He became the team’s most clutch receiver, leading the league with a 17.5-yard average on third-down receptions.
As the team transitioned from Wentz to Nick Foles, Agholor’s role became even more important, with the offense emphasizing quick-hitting underneath routes in the middle of the field to the slot receiver and tight end Zach Ertz. In the playoff win against Atlanta, Agholor had three receptions for 24 yards, but he also picked up 21 yards on a third-down inside handoff that kept alive the drive to the Eagles’ only touchdown.
“We keep looking for ways to get him the football. I would say he’s done a great job embracing that role,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “He’s the type of guy you can move around.”
Agholor ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine before the Eagles took him in the first round of the 2015 draft. He’s been able to apply that wideout speed to avoid nickel and slot defenders, who tend to be both a bit more physical and perhaps not as gifted as their counterparts on the outside.
“I think Nellie can play outside as well as inside, but there’s something about being in that slot and the way he moves,” Smith said. “He’s super quick, but unlike most slot guys who are more quick than fast, he’s fast, too. He can match up with anyone, and he can read defenses. His understanding is one thing I think is underrated. He’s a student of the game.”
Preparing for the Vikings, Agholor has studied Terence Newman, the Vikings’ nickel corner, as well as second-year cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who often gets the slot assignment and is considered one of the vulnerabilities in the Minnesota defense. Slot receivers for New Orleans gained 51 yards last Sunday in their playoff game, and that total is just about what the Vikings have allowed each game this season.
“Our coaching staff always does a great job with their weapons. Every day, I just want to soak in as much information as possible and work as hard as possible,” Agholor said. “I’m happy that my embracing of this opportunity has allowed me to be a part of something special, which is this year’s team.”
It would get a lot more special, of course, with a win Sunday that sends the Eagles to the Super Bowl for only the third time. The Vikings have taken note that if the Eagles offense succeeds, it will probably include healthy contributions from Agholor.
“I think he’s catching the ball well, His routes look a lot better,” Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s just a guy that has probably grown up.”
The Eagles organization was always hoping that would be the case, but there were no guarantees, and really no indication of that until the spring practices, when Agholor began to be noticed for the right things. Every success has to have a starting point, and that was it for Nelson Agholor. Where it ends might be just as surprising.