Through four games, Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery has 17 receptions for 215 yards and 2 touchdowns. That puts him on pace to finish 2017 with 68 receptions, 860 yards and 8 touchdowns.
That’s good – but is it $9.5-million-per-year good?
That’s the amount the Eagles agreed to pay Jeffery in March, and while it was only a one-year contract, we’re a quarter of the way through the season, and there’s a sense we may be no closer to knowing whether he was worth it. That figure doesn’t even include incentives, of which he’s currently on pace to earn another $400,000.
Ten million dollars for good-not-great production. Of course, there’s more to a player’s value than statistics.
Jeffery may not be busting out of the box score on a weekly basis, but he’s doing a heck of a lot more damage than the numbers suggest. Look no further than what the presence of a true No. 1 receiver has done for Eagles tight end Zach Ertz.
“It’s benefited (Ertz) tremendously,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Friday. “He’s getting a little more of the one-on-one stuff. You’re not seeing the combo coverages necessarily on Zach until you get in the red zone area.
“Having Alshon on the outside, on the perimeter, has really allowed him to have better one-on-one matchups. He does a great job with that, and a good route-runner – obviously, it’s really helped him.”
Ertz is currently tied for fourth in the NFL with 26 receptions and ranks sixth with 326 receiving yards. The fifth-year player is off to the by far best start of his career, and it is absolutely thanks in part to Jeffery.
Look at Ertz’s 38-yard catch against the Chargers in Week 4. Jeffery is at the top of the screen in a twin-receiver set with Nelson Agholor, with two tight ends bunched at the bottom. Right away, you can see the single-high safety is shaded to the receiver-side of the field – he’s on the right hash mark, and the ball is being snapped on the left.
But with Jeffery and Agholor running shallow crosses, Ertz is really who the deep safety needs to be worried about.
Further compounding the matter for the Chargers, Brent Celek’s route to the sideline is going to draw the defensive back, leaving a linebacker stuck on Ertz down the field.
The defense winds up with five players looking at Jeffery and Agholor, a defensive back on 32-year-old Celek – and Ertz soon to be all alone. It’s a nice play-design all-around, but the lack of safety help over the top is what allows this to go for a huge gain.
These plays rarely happened in 2016 because the Eagles didn’t have a legitimate big-play threat on the outside. Jordan Matthews was the best wide receiver on the team, and he lined up primarily in the slot. That made life easy on defenses, which could focus all of the attention on the middle of the field, where Ertz does the bulk of his work.
“It spreads people out,” Pederson said. “Defensively, you’re worried about a couple of guys, not just one or an area of the field. “
It’s not just Ertz that’s benefiting, either. Agholor pulled in a 36-yard reception on a similar look in the first quarter, and Torrey Smith would’ve had a big play, too, if he could only hold on to the football.
Jeffery may not have the pure numbers to justify his salary, but there’s no question he’s making a difference. Plus, in addition to drawing safety help to his side of the field, Jeffery has often drawn the defense’s No. 1 cornerback as well – Josh Norman, Marcus Peters, Janoris Jenkins and Casey Heyward thus far.
“That’s part of it,” Pederson said. “Any time you put their top defender against your top receiver, I don’t want to say it eliminates the field, but it definitely draws your attention to other areas. They can be part of the – I don’t want to say a problem – but it can be a part of the lack of targets and things like that because it’s a solid matchup.
“You’re not going to sit there and try to shove sand when you don’t need to. You still have a tight end and a couple other receivers and the run game that you can work.”
In other words, when the Cardinals have Patrick Peterson locked on Jeffery all day this Sunday (see 5 matchups to watch), don’t be surprised when the Eagles target Ertz or look to their other options instead.