Inside the Eagles: Nelson Agholor's improvement starts with a new stance

When Nelson Agholor first met his new wide receivers coach, he asked a simple question – “What do I need to get better at?” – and Mike Groh’s response was to start at the beginning.

“I said, ‘You need to get better with your stance,’” Groh said recently. “That was probably the first thing I said.”

Groh is a details kind of coach. He could have started almost anywhere with Agholor, who had regressed in his second season with the Eagles. The receiver had lost much of his confidence by the end of last year and even catching the ball had become problematic.

But rather than go big picture and focus on results, Groh quickly identified that Agholor’s pre-snap stance had become inconsistent and he drilled the 24-year old incessantly on the proper foot alignment and crouch.

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“It’s just something that we’ve repped a lot more here with Groh,” Agholor said Wednesday. “We’ve just got to be explosive off the ball. That starts everything with your route running and your approach to attacking the defense.”

Agholor and his coaches have given many reasons for the receiver’s overall improvement this year. He credits his offseason conditioning and renewed mental approach. Coach Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich have said that experience has played a role in Agholor’s emergence.

And having new additions Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith shoulder some of the pressure and moving primarily into the slot are cogent explanations, as well. But Groh, who was hired in January after Greg Lewis was fired, appears to have also made a difference.

“I love his attention to detail,” Agholor said, “and I love his ability to challenge me every day.”

Agholor set career game highs in catches (six), receiving yards (86) and caught his longest touchdown (58 yards) in three seasons in the opener against the Redskins on Sunday.

It’s early, but he’s sixth among 70 NFL receivers in yards per route run (3.19 average) through Week 1 after finishing dead last out of 96 receivers in the same statistic (0.69) last season.

Agholor said that he’s having more success, in part, because his stance has become sound, and as a result he’s more explosive off the line, his timing with quarterback Carson Wentz is more exact, and getting open and catching the ball has become easier.

“I notice a difference even on game day,” Agholor said. “I feel that I show longer flashes of explosiveness late in the game. Whereas if I check myself a year ago there were points where I felt like you could see when fatigue was setting in and I can see myself dragging or late off the ball.”

Groh said that Agholor tended to get too high and upright in his pre-snap stance last season. Sprinters start in a crouch because their legs act as coiled compression springs. Receivers don’t have time to get up and out of that kind of position, but having some bend increases power and speed.

“I think naturally receivers can get a little high in their stance because as you go through the course of a game or a practice you get tired, then you stand,” Groh said. “So you’ve got to force yourself to bend your knees and get your hips down and get your cleats in the ground.”

If you have a proper stance, then you will have balance as you take off at the snap, Groh says. Eagles receiver Torrey Smith said that he tends to have a pigeon-toed stance and that his new coach must occasionally remind him to straighten his feet.

“We need to have a balanced stance because we need to be efficient with our movement and we want to be powerful,” Groh said. “We don’t want to waste steps at the line of scrimmage because they’re trying to kill our quarterback back there.

“So if we’re spending too much time at the line of scrimmage, we’re not going to be where we’re supposed to be when we need to be.”

Agholor appears to be getting there.​

Lane left out

When Jason Peters left the Redskins game with a groin injury, the Eagles didn’t flip Lane Johnson from right to left tackle.

They kept Johnson on the right and inserted backup Halapoulivaati Vaitai into Peters’ spot. While the belief heading into the season was that he would swing sides in case of emergency, Johnson said that he expects to stay strictly on the right all year.

“I think my time at left won’t be until [Peters] retires,” Johnson said Thursday. “It’s really about getting reps and I hadn’t gotten any reps there. We didn’t want to do what we did in the Bills game.”

Peters missed the Bills preseason game for a personal reason and Johnson started in his place even though he hadn’t practiced there much in the days beforehand. He struggled against Buffalo defensive end Jerry Hughes.

Johnson is the likely future at left tackle, but having your best lineman on the blind side isn’t as much of an imperative as it was once considered. More and more defenses are lining up their best edge rusher on the left.

“I guess they’re starting to put guys on the right tackle, or usually the weaker tackle,” Johnson said. “I’ve seen it evolve, especially the last couple years.”

On most weeks this season, Johnson is scheduled to face an opponent’s best edge rusher. He faced the Redskins’ Ryan Kerrigan in the opener. He has the Chiefs’ Justin Houston this Sunday. And after that he has the Broncos’ Von Miller, the Raiders’ Khalil Mack, the Chargers Joey Bosa, the Seahawks’ Michael Bennett, the New York Giants’ Jason Pierre Paul (twice) and Kerrigan one more time, to name the most prominent.

“I got Pro Bowlers pretty much every week,” Johnson said. “It’s a tough … schedule.”

Vaitai played exclusively at right tackle last season. He practiced on both sides during the offseason in anticipation of being the game day swing tackle, but he said he was still surprised when he got the call to play on the left.

“I didn’t expect it,” Vaitai said. “You’ve just got to be ready. I try to work on maximizing my technique on both sides, which is not easy to do. … It just has to do with muscle memory. My muscle memory is at right tackle because that’s where I had been training.”

Darling Clement

Corey Clement opened his NFL career and the Eagles’ 2017 season with a bang when he laid the wood on Redskins kick returner Bashaud Breeland.

“It felt great to set the tone early in the game,” Clement said Wednesday. “It was the message I wanted to send being a rookie that was undrafted. It wasn’t just making the team for me. I want to make an impact.”

Clement, who made the Eagles as a running back, said he hadn’t played special teams since high school. But he wouldn’t have made the roster and been active at Washington if he hadn’t shown a willingness and adeptness to play on all four core units.

The Wisconsin alum and Glassboro High product led the Eagles with two special-teams tackles Sunday.

“I talked to [teammate] Brandon Graham right before we walked out of the tunnel and he said, ‘Why can’t you make the first play?’ I said, ‘You’re right,’” Clement said. “I had it locked in my mind and went out there. I didn’t think at all and just did it.”

It could be only a matter of time until Clement sees the field on offense. LeGarrette Blount, Wendell Smallwood, and Darren Sproles are ahead of him on the depth chart, but the trio averaged only a combined 2.7 yards a carry against the Redskins.

“I wish it was up to me, but at the end of the day I’ve got  to do what they say,” Clement said. “We have four good backs that deserve the ball. When my number’s called, they’ll know I’m ready.”

Five questions: Lane Johnson

  1. If you couldn’t play the position you now play in the NFL, which position would you want to play? Tight end. Not quarterback. I feel like I could do [tight end] right now if I dropped down to 270 [pounds].
  2. What’s your least favorite part of the week practice leading up to a game? Probably Saturdays because I don’t like having to fly and all that travel [bull].
  3. What’s the hardest you’ve ever been hit? Pee-wee football, I got blindsided by this kid I’m pretty sure was over age. I’m pretty sure I got a [darn] concussion.
  4. What’s your favorite play you ever made in football? Goes back to high school. It was last-second, we snapped the ball and we ran a post corner and I threw the touchdown to win the game.
  5. When did you first think that you were good enough to play in the NFL? Late in my junior year of college just watching film and going against decent guys and doing well against them.

Inside the game

Rookie cornerback Rasul Douglas is slated to dress for his first NFL game on Sunday in Kansas City. Ronald Darby’s dislocated ankle opened a spot on the game day roster and coach Doug Pederson said Monday that the Eagles’ third round draft pick would fill it.

There’s still a chance that Dexter McDougle could get the nod ahead of Douglas, who admitted to struggling with the schematic finer points of playing in coordinator Jim Schwartz’s defense.

“In the [NFL], everything gives away something,” Douglas said. “I’ve learned more about why we’re in the coverages we’re in, the red zone, for example. Why are we doing this right now on third down or on first down?”

The West Virginia product said that he played almost exclusively man-to-man defense in college.

— Jaylen Watkins is still listed as a safety on the Eagles’ official roster, but he has practiced almost exclusively at cornerback for the last month. It paid off on Sunday when Watkins helped fill in for the injured Darby.

“There’s no need for me to play safety now,” Watkins said. “The way our secondary’s built, there are like three or four guys that can go either way.”

Watkins and safeties Corey Graham and Malcolm Jenkins can swing both ways. The Eagles also have versatile cornerbacks who can play inside and out, which is why they may use a variety of packages in Darby’s absence.

Patrick Robinson is expected to start outside alongside Jalen Mills, but when the Eagles use their nickel package, Douglas, Watkins or Graham could be the fifth defensive back depending upon Chiefs personnel.

Inside the locker room

Jim Schwartz provided an anecdote the other day about enforcing Doug Pederson’s rule restricting players from wearing sleeveless shirts and tank tops in the cafeteria, but the rule has been in place since Andy Reid was the Eagles’ head coach, according to several players.

Nevertheless, its existence likely has more to do with sanitation than anything else.

“I don’t think they want us getting hair in the food,” tackle Lane Johnson said.

— The Eagles elected season-long captains last week for the first time in a long time.

“I just wanted to put the onus back on the players,” Pederson said.

All 53 players voted for five captains — two on offense, two on defense, and one on special teams — and quarterback Carson Wentz, tackle Jason Peters, defensive end Brandon Graham, safety Malcolm Jenkins, and safety/special teams ace Chris Margos were selected.

The Eagles previously selected their captains on a week-to-week basis. Jenkins said Pederson asked some of the leaders before the season which method they preferred. Jenkins, who was a captain with the Saints, said he suggested having season-long captains.

“I think it’s good to identify a few leaders that stand out in front of the team all the time,” Jenkins said.

A sixth captain will be chosen before each game.

By the numbers

9-4

Eagles record vs. former head coaches (Andy Reid 0-1, Rich Kotite 1-0, Buddy Ryan 3-1, Marion Campbell 0-1, Dick Vermeil 4-0, Mike McCormack 1-0, Nick Skorich 0-1).

15

Passes thrown at Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills vs. the Redskins – four more than any other NFL defensive back. (He allowed 10 catches for 108 yards and had an interception).

31.8

Percentage of drops in which Carson Wentz used play action, the highest in the NFL after Week 1. (He completed 7 of 12 passes for 62 yards on play-action, missing Torrey Smith deep twice.)

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