It was widely assumed the Eagles would add a wide receiver in free agency and another in the draft. Instead, the Eagles signed two wideouts, then chose two more in the draft.
Veterans Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith were brought in to provide an instant boost to a receiving corps previously headlined by Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor. North Carolina’s Mack Hollins and West Virginia’s Shelton Gibson are also aboard, enhancing the unit’s outlook for the future. After everything the Eagles did, is there any doubt they upgraded at wide receiver for 2017?
The Eagles finished tied for 28th last season with 39 completions of 20 yards or more, and tied for 26th with 6 completions of 40 yards or more. The offense was also tied for 28th with 16 touchdown passes. Needless to say, they lacked firepower in the aerial attack.
No more. Alshon Jeffery ranks 11th among active receivers with 15.0 yards per receptions and 10th with 72.2 receiving yards per game. At 6-foot-3, 218 pounds, Jeffery can also be a beast in the red zone, once hauling in 10 touchdowns in a season. And Smith is one of the preeminent deep threats in the NFL, provided we overlook a disappointing 2016 campaign. Even after a down year, Smith is third among active players with 17.0 yards per reception and has also eclipsed 10 scores in a single season.
Both Jeffery and Smith posted disappointing numbers their final year with the Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers, respectively. Yet, both are also capable of so much more. Jeffery is a physical freak who excels at winning 50/50 balls. Smith is a burner who safeties must respect down the field even when the ball isn’t coming his way. The fact that either or both could go off for over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns AND make the highlight reel every week is a scary thought for opposing defensive backs.
Entering his fourth NFL season, Matthews pretty much is who he is at this point. So why is he in the “Better” column? You can thank Jeffery and Smith for that.
Matthews is a better player than he’s often given credit for, but for the past two seasons, he’s been the Eagles’ proverbial feature receiver from the slot. The problem is, without a legitimate deep threat in the offense, or really any respectable presence on the perimeter, defenses have been able to clamp down on the short and intermediate routes in the middle of the field. That just happens to be where Matthews makes his money.
The pressure is largely off Matthews now. Teams will occasionally double cover Jeffery, and safeties will back up with Smith on the opposite side, leaving a lot fewer defenders in the middle of the field and a lot more room to run. Matthews is always going to drop the occasional pass, and he may be best suited for a complementary role. He is also somebody only one year removed from 85 receptions for 997 yards and 8 touchdowns. With this supporting cast, Matthews will have a chance to best those numbers.
It may surprise you to learn the Eagles didn’t have the absolute worst receiving corps in the NFL last season – but it was close. The 2016 unit might even be in the conversation for most inept in franchise history. There doesn’t appear to be a single measureable way in which the incoming group isn’t improved, though, so that’s obviously a plus.
NFL players often improve with time in the same scheme and increasing familiarity with their surroundings, and that may well be the case for Green-Beckham. However, there continues to be this seeming disconnect between his raw physical ability and his presence on the football field.
Green-Beckham is 6-5, 237 pounds with 4.4 speed and a 33.5-inch vertical jump. Yet, he never seems to be open down the field, never seems to win a jump ball and doesn’t catch many contested passes, period. At this point, it may not be a matter of learning on an offense or building a rapport with the quarterback. He simply doesn’t have great ball skills, and that probably isn’t coachable. Realistically, Green-Beckham would have a hard time cracking the 53-man roster anyway, but if he somehow did, don’t anticipate a big change.
Agholor had a tremendous spring at OTAs and minicamp. Then again, Agholor has always looked sharp in practice. It’s the games that are the problem. Still, he looks noticeably bigger and remains committed to improvement, so maybe his offseason is a sign of bigger things to come.
Normally, we would be ready to give up on a first-round pick with 59 receptions for 648 yards and 3 touchdowns through two seasons. Then again, it would cost the Eagles more to release Agholor than keep him on the roster, so he’s likely here for 2017. And in all honesty, it’s a bit of a mystery why his talent hasn’t panned out at this level. He’s not No. 1 material or anything, but Agholor could still be a contributor for the Eagles, especially if spring workouts were a sign of his growth and maturity.
Neither Mack Hollins nor Shelton Gibson are likely to play a huge role in 2017. Hollins has the better chance of the two. He’s impressed bystanders this spring, some even just commenting on his chiseled physique, and is likely to be active on Sundays because he plays special teams. Gibson has struggled to hold on to the football, plus his skill set is a duplicate of Smith’s right now, so we may not see a whole lot of him.
No matter what happens, it’s unlikely we’re going to get a sense of whether the Eagles hit or miss with either player. Jeffery, Smith and Matthews will see the bulk of the playing time, provided they are healthy, and Agholor is the first guy off the bench. Injuries and sub-packages may get Hollins on the field occasionally, but that should be all.
BETTER OR WORSE?
The Eagles essentially added a Pro Bowl receiver, a proven deep threat and two rookies to a receiving corps with Matthews and Agholor, without subtracting anybody. That speaks to both the improvements made and how bad the unit was last year. Just about any combination of moves would’ve amounted to an upgrade here, although with Jeffery and Smith in particular, the Eagles receivers have the opportunity to be better by leaps and bounds in 2017. Better