Alshon Jeffery had about as many passes thrown his way on Thursday night as he did the previous two weeks of training camp – at least during Eagles team drills.
Carson Wentz, who said earlier this week that Jeffery playing in the preseason seemed like “a long time coming,” went to the wide receiver on five of his nine pass attempts against the Bills. Only two were caught as the Eagles quarterback forced a few.
But Wentz was clearly looking to establish a rhythm with Jeffery, who he has practiced with little in camp and who he may have only one more opportunity to throw to before the preseason ends.
“The sky’s the limit,” Jeffery said. “We just got to keep working to get better.”
The Eagles’ revamped receiver corp continued its makeover this past week when Jordan Matthews was traded to Buffalo – along with a third-round draft pick – for cornerback Ronald Darby. The second preseason game – a 20-16 victory — offered the first glimpse of the new-look offense with Jeffery and Torrey Smith on the outside and Nelson Agholor in the slot.
It wasn’t exactly pretty, although Wentz and the receivers were hardly at fault for the first team’s sloppy four drives before Doug Pederson hooked the unit. Blocking was an issue on the first three possessions – each without a first down – and running back LeGarrette Blount fumbled to end the only efficient drive for the group.
It took four series and three passes for Wentz to hook up with Jeffery. The first attempt was high. And the second came on third and goal when the receiver ran a corner fade. The Bills had Jeffery double-covered, though, and Wentz’s pass sailed (intentionally?) out of the back of the end zone.
But the combo finally connected two possessions later when Wentz fired to Jeffery on a quick “hitch” route. It was an easy 9 yards, but those are pass plays built upon timing and chemistry. Two plays later – after Agholor caught a 7-yard “out” for a first down as the Eagles went up-tempo – Wentz hit the slanting Jeffery for 14 yards.
“It was good to get him out there and finally get some opportunities to get some completions with him,” Wentz said. “Obviously the first offense, the first couple of drives were not what we wanted.”
The quarterback tried him one last time, but the pass was batted at the line and Jeffery, rather than risk injury, eased up and watched the ball fall to the turf. It was hard to fault the receiver for bailing on the play, and it has been equally difficult to overly criticize the Eagles for their preferential treatment of Jeffery the last several weeks.
The risk of injury is prevalent and he had suffered an early-camp shoulder injury. Jeffery is an important player on the roster. But so are tackle Jason Peters, who was excused from the game for a personal reason, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, and countless others. Pederson gave a few a break here or there, but nowhere near as often as Jeffery, who was deemed healthy a day after he initially sat out.
Could the Eagles have made that decision without any input from the player? Jeffery told reporters after the preseason opener in Green Bay that he didn’t enjoy playing in the preseason. Few veterans do.
But Jeffery was on the field a week later and walked off without injury. Did he and Wentz do enough together that would make the Eagles comfortable enough to rest the receiver next week? Hardly. The third preseason game is typically when the starters play most before getting the final exhibition off.
“Do I need it? I don’t think so,” Wentz said when asked if he needed more preseason time with Jeffery. “Would I love it? Absolutely.”
But their lack of early chemistry – if indeed true – is a small problem in the larger scope, and only magnified by the NFL’s inflation of the preseason.
Wentz’s completion to Agholor may have had more significance because it was a situation in which he would often look to Matthews. The former Eagles slot receiver was often the young quarterback’s safety blanket.
But he was also his best friend on the Eagles and his departure had a noticeable effect on Wentz. He shouldn’t carry his angst onto the field. If he were, it would be a red flag. But Wentz understands that the deal likely made the Eagles better on the field. And he may have gotten an upgrade in the slot out of it.
Agholor is a still far from matching Matthews’ production in his first three years. But he has a more versatile skill set. He later caught a 21-yard pass from reserve quarterback Matt McGloin. Agholor split the zone, sped up field and evaded one tackler before finally going down.
If he can stretch defenses in the middle of the field – a big if considering his past — that will only open the middle for tight ends Zach Ertz and Trey Burton and running backs Darren Sproles and Donnel Pumphrey. And if Wentz can move the chains in between the numbers that should only create space for Jeffery and Smith on the outside.
But you had to squint your eyes on Thursday to picture an Eagles offense that can be as efficient. The unit, as a whole, was sloppy for the second straight week. The first team had relative success in Green Bay, but the sample was small. The starters didn’t play much against the Bills, and Peters was missing, but Pederson won’t enjoy re-watching the film.
There is an immediate cure. The Eagles could pull together a few sustained drives next week against the Dolphins that would provide positive momentum heading into the regular season. And a few Wentz-to-Jeffery highlights wouldn’t hurt either.
If the receiver plays.