It’s the final full week before Eagles training camp begins so we’re taking a closer look at five notable camp competitions.
Up today: Receiver
The Eagles this offseason hired a first-time head coach who has an extensive history coaching the wide receiver position. Maybe that will help.
Because if you haven’t noticed, the Eagles’ receiving corps in recent years have left much to be desired. There’s a reason why the Eagles have used back-to-back first round picks on the position and now they have to hope those picks pay off.
Earlier this offseason, ProFootballFocus ranked the Eagles’ receiving corps as the No. 30 unit in the 32-team NFL, ahead of just the Detroit Lions and Houston Texans. So, yeah, there’s a lot of room for improvement.
In the last five years, the Eagles on their initial roster kept five receivers twice (2016, 2019) and six receivers twice (2017, 2018). They also kept seven last year but that was because they basically decided to waste a roster spot on an injured Alshon Jeffery.
Meanwhile, in the three years Nick Sirianni was in Indianapolis, the Colts kept five receivers in 2018 and then six the last two seasons.
So it seems relatively safe to say the Eagles will be keeping five or six receivers on their initial roster heading into the 2021 season.
Here’s a reminder of the nine receivers on the roster right now: DeVonta Smith, Jalen Reagor, Greg Ward Jr., Travis Fulgham, Quez Watkins, John Hightower, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Jhamon Ausbon, Michael Walker.
How many of those players are truly roster locks?
Smith and Reagor — the two first-round picks — are obviously on the team. Ward should be on the team too; he’s the most experienced receiver and the surest thing … and he also returns punts. Same with Fulgham, who led the team in receiving yards last year. Watkins might not be stone-a cold lock, but he feels like a pretty safe bet to make the team.
So we’re already at five. There’s a chance that’s all that make the roster. Or there’s a chance there’s one spot remaining for four players to fight over.
Let’s take a look at the receivers beyond Smith, Reagor and Ward:
Experience: Year 3
Size: 6-2, 215
I think it’s a very safe bet that Fulgham will be on the Eagles’ roster in 2021 … but that still doesn’t answer the biggest question about him: What is he? Because there’s no way that magical month stretch last season was a fluke. But will he ever get back to that level? It’s one of the more curious storylines around this team as they get ready for training camp. Fulgham came out of nowhere last season to catch 29 passes for 435 yards and 4 touchdowns in a five-week span, making him the NFL’s third-leading receiver during that stretch.
We’ll see how the Eagles choose to line up in 2021, but if Fulgham has an impressive training camp, he’ll be able to earn some playing time this year. That’s exciting because we’ve seen him play at a very high level. If he ends up being a good player, that would be a major boost for a unit that could finally use one.
Experience: Year 2
Size: 6-0, 193
The sixth-round pick out of Southern Mississippi finished his rookie season strong, playing in the last four games of the year. In those last four games, he had 7 catches for 106 yards and a touchdown. No, not incredible stats, but he showed flashes of why the Eagles liked him. And you’d rather see him finish strong like this than to start fast and tail off.
It’s also worth noting that his production at the end of the season coincided with Jalen Hurts’ being named the starter. Hurts and Watkins clearly developed a rapport that helped them find some late-season success. Like with Fulgham, it seems like a safe bet that Watkins will be on the roster and the opportunity for him to grow with Hurts is exciting.
Experience: Year 2
Size: 6-2, 190
The Eagles drafted Hightower out of Boise State in the fifth round and clearly liked him because he started four straight games early in the season. But he ended up catching just 10 passes out of 29 targets (34.5%) and dropped a handful of passes too. By the end of the season, he had fallen so far out of favor that he was a healthy scratch for three straight games in Weeks 14-16.
While Hightower’s rookie season ended on a sour note, he does have some tools. He has good length, speed and is a solid route runner. But he clearly fell out of favor last year. And the fact that he doesn’t offer much on special teams — he didn’t play a single special teams snap as a rookie — won’t help. Typically, that sixth receiver better be able to contribute on special teams.
Experience: Year 3
Size: 6-2, 225
This might be the last chance for JJAW. It’s Year 3 for the former second-round pick and there’s no question that his first two years in the NFL have been abject disappointments. Even removing the list of guys the Eagles could have had instead, JJAW has still been overwhelmingly disappointing. He has just 14 career catches for 254 yards and 1 touchdown and now we’re talking about him battling it out to perhaps be the sixth and final receiver on the roster. Certainly not what the Eagles envisioned when they used the No. 57 pick on him a few years ago.
But I also wouldn’t completely write JJAW off just yet. Teams are always hesitant to throw in the towel on draft picks and now there’s a new coaching staff in town, so there might be some hope to finally get something out of him. It sounds like the Eagles might try him inside and outside during training camp, which isn’t why they drafted him, but if it helps him get better, so be it. But like Hightower, JJAW also doesn’t offer much on special teams, playing just 20 special teams snaps in his first two seasons. He has seen some practice time as a gunner but isn’t very high on the depth chart in that respect.
Size: 6-2, 217
It will be an uphill climb for Ausbon, the undrafted rookie out of Texas A&M, to make the roster. But at least Trevon Grimes, another UDFA from Florida, is already out of the way; he was released with an injury designation earlier this offseason. The Eagles liked Ausbon enough to pay him $80,000 guaranteed, the fourth-most among their UDFA class, so he at least has a shot.
Ausbon is not a burner by any stretch; he ran a 4.70 at his pro day. But he did have a big season for the Aggies in 2019 before opting out last year. He is more of a big slot target who is strong enough to make some contested catches.
Experience: Year 2
Size: 5-11, 194
The Eagles signed Walker last month in a move that largely went under the radar. The former UDFA from Boston College has some experience, playing in seven games with the Jaguars in 2019. He returned 3 punts (for 13 yards) and 18 kickoffs (for 411 yards/22.8). Overall, he played 154 special teams snaps (35%) for the Jaguars in 2019.
That ability on special teams is something to keep in mind, especially as we try to figure out if the Eagles want to keep six receivers. Because maybe a player like Hightower or JJAW has more upside as a receiver, but are they going to help the Eagles in 2021? Walker might be able to.
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