Jordan Matthews wasn’t perfect, but he caught 225 passes and had 19 touchdown catches in three seasons with the Eagles.
He wasn’t perfect, but he was one of just five players in NFL history with 65-plus catches and 800-plus receiving yards in each of their first three years.
It’s not easy to wave bye-bye to a guy who gave you that kind of consistent production, even if you’re getting one of the league’s more highly regarded young corners in return. So why did they do it?
Matthews’ fate with the Eagles probably was sealed as early as last spring, when new head coach Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich experimented with him on the outside during OTAs and very quickly came to the conclusion that he was strictly a slot receiver.
A really, really good slot receiver. But a guy who essentially could play only inside.
Matthews is entering the final year of his rookie contract. Eagles football-ops chief Howie Roseman said Friday after the trade that the decision to move Matthews “never came down to [his] asking for too much money.’’
He’s right, mainly because the Eagles never had any substantive negotiations with Matthews’ agent, Bus Cook.
But if Matthews has another productive season, which is a pretty good bet, his market value is going to be very high.
And the Eagles weren’t willing to break the bank for a guy who, despite being one of the league’s best slot receivers, doesn’t have the inside-outside versatility they want in their wideouts.
“Jordan’s niche in the style of offense I brought [to the Eagles] was a slot receiver,’’ Pederson said Saturday. “He felt comfortable in there. It just worked out that he became and worked extremely well for us in that position.’’
But Pederson is trying to build an offense based on versatility. He has a pair of running backs – Darren Sproles and rookie Donnel Pumphrey — who can line up all over the formation. During Saturday’s practice, Pumphrey frequently lined up in the slot and out wide as well as in the backfield.
He has three veteran tight ends – Zach Ertz, Trey Burton, and Brent Celek — whom he also can line up all over the formation.
“The slot position, we move so many guys around in that position that it’s [based] kind of by the design of the offense, by the scheme of the offense,’’ Pederson said.
“With the versatility of some of the running backs we have, like Sproles and Pumphrey, they can utilize that position and create some matchups against the defense. So, the versatility of the [slot] position and flexibility we have personnel-wise as far as who we can put in that spot benefits us offensively.’’
Said Roseman: “There’s one football. We look at all of the skill positions as a whole. We look at the wide receiver position and the tight end position and the running back position [as an interchangeable group].’’
The two primary candidates to replace Matthews in the slot are Nelson Agholor and rookie fourth-rounder Mack Hollins. Unlike Matthews, both of them can play inside or outside, and both of them did at Saturday’s practice.
Agholor, who played in the slot his last year at Southern Cal and had 104 catches for 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns, got a lot of reps in the slot this spring when Matthews was sidelined with tendinitis in his knee, and he played well.
After two disappointing seasons, the jury still is out on the 2015 first-round pick. But the Eagles are hopeful.
The 6-4, 221-pound Hollins, who had an impressive 38-yard touchdown catch and run against the Packers on Thursday night, hadn’t been getting a lot of reps in the slot. But that will change. Hollins brings the same kind of size advantage inside against smaller nickel corners that Matthews did. But he also has the speed to move outside that Matthews lacked.
“The game is about matchups,’’ Hollins said. “If my best matchup is inside against a smaller nickel, then that’s where I’ll be. If it’s outside, then I’ll be outside. It’s wherever coach sees fit to put me.’’
The advantage of having versatile skill-position players who can line up anywhere in the formation is that it allows the offense to run a plethora of different plays with the same personnel.
It keeps defenses guessing, forces them to make difficult decisions on whether to use their base defense or a sub-package, and creates mismatches, such as a linebacker or safety trying to cover Pumphrey or Sproles.
During Saturday’s practice, the Eagles used two-running-back packages with Sproles and Pumphrey that had Sproles lining up in the backfield and Pumphrey lining up out wide and in the slot.
“You don’t have to take guys out for certain plays when they can line up inside or outside,’’ Hollins said. “It’s, ‘Hey, he’s run in the slot before, so we can do this or that.’
“You don’t have to [wonder], ‘Hey, I don’t know if he can run from the slot, so let’s put somebody else in.’ Because that gives a lot of plays away to defenses. It’s good that everybody’s comfortable in the slot.’’
Ertz was one of Matthews’ best friends on the team. From both a personal and team standpoint, he hated to see him go. But he understands the reasoning.
“He’s produced in this league for three years,’’ Ertz said. “He was one of the best slot receivers in the league.
“The good news is that, on paper, we have a lot of guys who can fill the spot between myself, Trey, Pumphrey, Sproles, Nelson, and some of the young guys.
“I think the NFL is moving toward multiple offenses and moving guys around and putting them in situations to be successful. I think that’s the approach we’re going to take.’’