For Eagles, high hopes for upgraded wide receiving corps

NFL 2017: Eagles OTA MAY 30-05062017-0003
Carson Wentz chats with new Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery (17) at practice in May.

Doug Pederson has spoken often this offseason about his offense’s poor third-down and red-zone production last year.

“Those are critical areas that we need to get better at,’’ the Eagles coach said.

The Eagles finished 20th in third-down efficiency (37.9 percent) and 24th in red-zone touchdown percentage (49.1) last year.

Just three of the 12 teams that finished behind the Eagles in third-down efficiency made the playoffs. And over the last five years, just seven teams with a sub-50-percent red-zone percentage have qualified for the postseason.

So, yeah, those are pretty important areas.

While Carson Wentz’s progression from a wide-eyed rookie to a confident quarterback with 16 starts under his belt certainly should help the Eagles improve those two numbers, football operations chief Howie Roseman and vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas – and well, pretty much anybody else who watched the Eagles play last year – knew the team’s wide receiving corps also needed to be upgraded.

Slot receiver Jordan Matthews was the only wideout with more than 36 catches last year. Eagles wide receivers caught just eight touchdown passes, their fewest since 2003, when Freddie Mitchell, Todd Pinkston and James Thrash combined for five. Their 91 receiving first downs also were the fewest by the unit since ’03.

The wideouts’ 39 third-down receptions were the fewest since ’09. Thirty-one wide receivers in the league had more third-down receptions than Matthews’ team-high 19.

Changes definitely needed to be made.

It started with the teacher. Pederson fired wide receivers coach Greg Lewis and replaced him with the more experienced Mike Groh.

Then, the Eagles made a bold move in free agency, signing former Groh pupil Alshon Jeffery to a one-year, $9.5 million deal (plus $4.5 million in incentives). They also signed another veteran wideout, Torrey Smith, and added two more – 6-4, 220-pound Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson – in the draft.

Throw in undrafted free agent Greg Ward, and five of the 12 wideouts on the Eagles’ training camp roster weren’t with the team last season.

“You’re always trying to acquire talent to put around your quarterback,’’ Pederson said. “To add guys like Alshon and Torrey, with the game experience they bring to a relatively young group, they can show through example and leadership how you should play.’’

Both Jeffery and Smith are looking to rebound after sub-par seasons the last two years. The 6-3, 218-pound Jeffery was one of the league’s most productive wideouts in 2013-14, but missed 11 games with injuries the last two years. He caught 17 touchdown passes in 2013-14, including nine in the red zone. His 123 receiving first downs in those two seasons were the sixth most in the league.

After catching 30 touchdown passes in four seasons with Baltimore, Smith signed with San Francisco and seldom saw the ball there, catching just 53 passes and scoring seven touchdowns in two seasons.

“Torrey’s a pro,’’ Groh said. “He goes about his business the right way every day. He’s a wonderful influence in the (wide receivers) room.

“He still has that vertical speed. He’s a threat down the field. That’s the thing he’s really made his reputation on in the NFL. He complements Alshon well on the other side.’’

One of the most pleasant surprises of the spring at wide receiver was a guy who’s been one of their biggest disappointments: 2015 first-round pick Nelson Agholor. Agholor has just 59 receptions and three TDs in his first two years in the league.

With Matthews missing almost the entire spring with tendinitis in his knee, Agholor moved inside to the slot and looked good.

“I was very pleased with the spring that he had,’’ Groh said. “He attacked the spring. He showed up and made an impact in virtually every practice.

“His ability to play inside or outside makes him valuable. He’s hard to cover in the slot. Fundamentally with him, it’s just a matter of going back to basics.

“We’re trying to build a foundation of things that I think are really important that may not have been emphasized by the previous coach. That doesn’t mean it’s better. It means it’s different.’’

Said Wentz of Agholor: “It looks like he might’ve gotten quicker and more explosive this offseason. He was getting open (in the spring), making plays. That’s good to see.’’

What Wentz and the Eagles need most, though, is for Jeffery to be the difference-making pass-catcher he was with the Bears in 2013-14.

With his size and long arms, he has an extraordinary catch radius that is going to make him a very valuable weapon in the red zone. Look for a lot more back-shoulder fades and 50/50 balls from Wentz than you saw last year.

“Just give me a chance (to catch the ball), that’s what I tell him,’’ Jeffery said.

Wentz clearly is excited about the opportunity to throw to Jeffery.

“He’s been unreal,’’ he said. “Having a guy like that who, you know, even if he’s covered, if you’re on the same page, if you just give him a chance, he can get it (is exciting).

“We’re still working on that. It’s a work in progress. But having that big body out there has been fun.’’

Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo said Jeffery’s catch radius and ball skills will allow Wentz a little leeway with his accuracy.

“It’s really impressive the way (Jeffery) can track a football in the air and go up with one hand and get a ball,’’ DeFilippo said. “The thing that’s very comforting for a quarterback is when a receiver has a big catching radius, where you don’t have to be pinpoint accurate all the time. Because it’s hard (for a quarterback). There’s a guy in your face. You’re trying to find lanes.

“When you can throw a guy open and feel confident that he’s going to be able to extend his hands outside his body to catch the football, that gives you a lot of confidence as a quarterback.’’

 

Eagles wide receivers had just eight touchdown catches last season, their fewest since 2003.