The Eagles’ top three additions at wide receiver from a year ago are all gone, yet there’s a lot of enthusiasm surrounding a returning star and a fresh face. Is this group of pass catchers poised for a better or worse season in 2019?
Key additions: DeSean Jackson (trade, Buccaneers), J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (draft, second round)
Key departures: Golden Tate (free agent, Giants), Jordan Matthews (free agent, 49ers), Mike Wallace (free agent)
Why they could be better: DeSean Jackson
The Eagles had the right idea attempting to pair Alshon Jeffery with a speed receiver on the outside the last two years, though it hasn’t worked entirely to plan. Torrey Smith was a serviceable deep threat in 2017, but a bit of a one-trick pony who would vanish from the offense for weeks at a time, and Mike Wallace wound up injured after two games and zero catches in 2018.
Jackson represents an upgrade over both players. Even at 32, he remains one of the NFL’s preeminent vertical threats. No receiver with at least 40 catches finished with a higher yards per reception (18.9) last season, and the three-time Pro Bowler is tied with Josh Gordon for the highest average among active players – their 17.4 more than a full yard better than Smith. Jackson can be a weapon in the intermediate passing game as well, something the Eagles experimented with a lot during OTAs. This is precisely the type of dynamic skill set that can elevate an offense.
Why they could be worse: Health concerns
Jeffery has played 16 games just once in the last four seasons, and he somehow did that with a torn rotator cuff in ’17. (It should be noted his four-game absence in 2016 was a suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy, which can still be construed as a “health concern” of sorts.) Jackson has missed at least one game every year dating back to 2014. They’re 29 and 32 respectively, so the likelihood of more injuries has only increased with the passage of time.
Great as this duo looks on paper, the Eagles are a couple of mishaps away from fielding a receiving corps of Nelson Agholor, rookie J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Mack Hollins, who has injury issues of his own after sitting out all of ’18 with a sports hernia. In fact, this was an issue early on last season when Jeffery, Wallace and Hollins were out, forcing the club to sign Jordan Matthews off the street. The offense looks a little better prepared were similarly bad luck to strike again, though there may not be an available replacement who can step in so seamlessly next time around if necessary.
The X-factor: What can Arcega-Whiteside bring to the table?
This is essentially a more interesting way of asking who will serve as the Eagles’ fourth receiver — not an unimportant job. Last season, Matthews caught 21 passes in that role. A year earlier, Hollins reeled in 17 as a rookie. And there are always injuries, so we’re also talking about the next man off the bench here.
Arcega-Whiteside has the inside track, and at 6-foot-2, 223 pounds with a 34-inch vertical, it’s not difficult to envision him becoming an instant weapon in the red zone. The Stanford product grabbed 14 touchdowns as a senior and 28 in a three-year college career. However, Hollins showed promise started practicing at the end of OTAs, so the Eagles could have another option if Arcega-Whiteside is slow to develop. Perennial camp favorite Greg Ward is in the mix for a role as well. So it becomes a matter of how much the new guy can pick up in a short amount of time.
Are the Eagles’ wide receivers better or worse?
On paper, there’s no question this is a better group with Jackson taking the place of Wallace or Golden Tate. And in Arcega-Whiteside, there appears to have a prospect who can potentially step into Jackson’s or Jeffery’s shoes in the event of an injury. The Eagles felt inclined to make mid-season moves at receiver in ’18, signing Matthews and trading for Golden Tate. If the absences mount again this year, the offense should be able to get by.
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