Eagles

Eagles mailbag: Will John Hightower make the roster in 2021?

Eagles

We’re less than two weeks from the start of training camp, always an exciting time on the NFL calendar.

Sure, the Eagles are rebuilding, they have a new head coach and a new quarterback, so expectations this season should be tempered. But still, there’s always a raw excitement around the beginning of an NFL season. And there will be some undeniable new energy around the NovaCare Complex this summer.

As we near camp, we’ll continue our series of the top 20 most important Eagles for the 2021 season and we’ll also have plenty of time to get you ready for training camp on the site and on the Eagle Eye podcast.

In the meantime, let’s take a dip into the mailbag:

John Hightower had a really strange rookie season. The fifth-round pick out of Boise State certainly has some ability, but he finished his rookie year with just 10 catches for 167 yards. Amazingly, those 10 catches came on 29 targets, which means his catch percentage was 34.5%. That’s shockingly bad. It was the worst catch percentage in the NFL last season among receivers with at least 20 targets and it wasn’t close; the next closest guy was A.J. Green at 45.2%. And it was the third-worst percentage of the last five years.

But the Eagles clearly saw something in Hightower, because he actually led Eagles receivers in snaps for three consecutive games from Weeks 3-5. But the fact that he fell out of favor with the coaching staff so quickly, becoming a healthy scratch late in the season, was certainly ominous.

 

Of course, this is a 25-year-old second-year player we’re talking about. So he’ll definitely have his chances to make the roster in 2021.

Back in May, when I put out my first 53-man roster projection, I had the Eagles’ keeping six receivers, including Hightower and Quez Watkins, the two late-round picks from a year ago. I had JJ Arcega-Whiteside as the odd man out. But I’m not very convinced that’s the way it will go. 

Really, I think those three will be battling for one or two roster spots. If I had to guess at the moment, I think Watkins’ job is the safest (I think there’s something there), which means Hightower and JJAW might be battling for that sixth spot … and there’s no guarantee the Eagles will keep six. At least the release of Trevon Grimes gives both players a slightly better shot. Another thing to keep in mind is that neither Hightower nor JJAW play special teams, something you’d ideally like from your sixth receiver.

I get that there would be frustration if the Eagles give JJAW another chance, but there’s a reason he was a second-round pick and teams are never in a hurry to give up on top draft picks. This spring, we learned that JJAW has been getting some reps inside as a slot receiver, which could mean the Eagles think he has some versatility or they’re simply trying to exhaust all their options before they give up on him.

OK, I guess I didn’t really answer the question yet, did I? Here it goes: Yes, Hightower can absolutely make the team, but it won’t be easy. In fact, if I did another 53-man projection right now, I’m not sure Hightower would be on it. He’ll have to earn his spot in training camp, which is possible but certainly not guaranteed by any stretch.

Both.

Smith is obviously a really good player. He was the No. 10 pick in the draft for a reason. He won the Heisman Trophy for a reason. He was the best receiver on a team that boasted three other first-round picks for a reason.

And the oddsmakers generally agree too. Smith’s over/under total for yards is 750.5, according to PointsBet. If he can top that, it gives him a legitimate shot to break the Eagles’ rookie record of 912 set by DeSean Jackson in 2008.

In the last two years, there have been nine rookie receivers to top 750 yards and seven of them led their team’s receivers in receiving yards. The only two who didn’t were Chase Claypool and CeeDee Lamb last season. But Tee Higgins, Justin Jefferson, Jerry Jeudy, A.J. Brown, Terry McLaurin and Deebo Samuel all led their teams in receiving as rookies.

So it’s all relative.

Even if Smith was in a position like Lamb found himself in last year, joining a Cowboys team that already had two studs in Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, I’d still expect him to have a good rookie season like Lamb did. Smith is good enough to shine even if he’s not the top dog. But in Smith’s real-life scenario, I’d be shocked if he didn’t lead the Eagles in receiving yards as a rookie. It’s a combination of his skill level and the lack of another bonafide playmaker in the Eagles’ receiver room.

 

The Eagles are actually in a much better position at linebacker than they are in the secondary.

Of course, that’s not to say they have a couple Pro Bowlers lining up at ‘backer, but they at least have some options. For now, I’d assume that Eric Wilson and Alex Singleton are the Eagles’ top two linebackers. Wilson is a newcomer from Minnesota but has familiarity with the base concepts we’ll see in Jonathan Gannon’s defense and is coming off a breakout season. Last year, Wilson started 15 of 16 games for the Vikings and had 122 tackles with 3 sacks, 9 QB hits, 3 interceptions and 8 pass breakups. He filled up the stat sheet. And Singleton is also coming off a breakout season in which he had 120 tackles after starting just 11 games. Oh yeah, and they’re just 26 and 27 years old respectively.

Using PFF’s projected starting lineups, Wilson and Singleton are the only starting linebacker tandem in the NFL in which both players are coming off a season with 120+ tackles.

So if we expect Wilson and Singleton to be the main two linebackers, after that the Eagles still have T.J. Edwards, who might be limited but is at least a solid early-down player. And then they have some young potential in Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley. Linebacker isn’t a huge strength for the Eagles but that position is at least respectable.

As for the secondary … Well. We know Darius Slay is a starter at CB1 and Anthony Harris and Rodney McLeod (assuming health) are the starters at safety. But who is CB2? Who is the nickel corner? Of all the holes on this roster, the one at cornerback is most glaring. The Eagles barely addressed it in free agency and the only thing they did in the draft was take Zech McPhearson in the fourth round. Sometimes fourth-rounders are able to contribute but expectations shouldn’t be too high. There’s still time to add another player but the clock is ticking.

Of all the concerns about the Eagles entering the 2021 season, the secondary (specifically cornerback) should be at the top of the list.

Very. Can’t wait.

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