Eagles Wake-Up Call: Wide Receiver Outlook

What will happen with Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor and Josh Huff?
Nelson Agholor and Jordan Matthews. (Jeff Fusco)

Nelson Agholor and Jordan Matthews. (Jeff Fusco)

Throughout the next two weeks, we’ll take a position-by-position look at where the Eagles stand going into the offseason. In the first two installments, we covered the quarterbacks and running backs. Now, it’s on to the wide receivers.

STATE OF THE ROSTER

Pick a statistic, and it probably reflects how uninspiring this unit was last season. Only one receiver finished in the top-140 in the NFL in yards (Jordan Matthews), and only one receiver finished in the top-150 in catches (Matthews again).

Among all Eagles in their first two seasons in franchise history, Matthews finished first in receptions (152), second in yards (1,869) and second in touchdowns (16). His 152 receptions also rank as the 10th-highest total in NFL history by a player in his first two seasons.

However, in 2015, Matthews fell victim to what plagued the entire receiving corps: drops. According to Pro Football Focus, Philadelphia led the league in that category. Although he initially denied it, Matthews admitted after the season that his hand injury did impact his ability to catch the ball. His teammates, however, had no such reasoning to fall back on.

With declining receiver talent each year under Chip Kelly between the DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin departures, the Eagles receivers weren’t expected to lead the league. Still, few expected the unit would finish with zero top-40 receivers, as ranked by Football Outsiders’ DYAR metric.

First-round pick Nelson Agholor didn’t meet expectations, although you can partially attribute his limited output — 23 catches for 283 yards and one touchdown — to injury. Veterans like Miles Austin and Riley Cooper under-performered so much they were both cut, and while Josh Huff showed some flashes, the 2014 third-round pick didn’t sustain much success (27 catches for 312 yards and three touchdowns).

Outside of Matthews, Seyi Ajirotutu may have been the Eagles’ most productive receiver, and that’s because of his special teams contributions.

WHAT I THINK WILL HAPPEN

The Eagles have five wide receivers under contract for 2016: Jonathan Krause, Freddie Martino, Agholor, Huff and Matthews. Philadelphia is extremely young at the position — Huff and Matthews have spent the most time in the NFL with two seasons each — so it’s fair to expect the Eagles to acquire a veteran. According to Spotrac, the Eagles have the least amount of money in the NFL dedicated to their receiving corps in 2016.

A few weeks ago, a report surfaced that Huff “isn’t real happy” in Philadelphia and that “it’s very unlikely he returns.” However, the receiver immediately took to his (private) Instagram page to deny the speculation. “Bro yal CAN NOT believe everything yal read,” he wrote. “I’m VERY excited to be apart of something special in Philadelphia with the new coaching staff.”

Ajirotutu said after the season that he’d like to be back in Philadelphia, however, it’s unclear how interested the Eagles are in retaining him. Even if he does return, his impact would be limited to special teams.

Although Agholor partially disappointed in 2015 because of his performance, Matthews made the argument after the season that the rookie may have been disappointing to some because expectations were unreasonably high. Matthews referenced how the early success of recent rookies — including Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin, Sammy Watkins and himself — changed the “narrative.”

Matthews added how Agholor isn’t surrounded by the most experienced group either.

“Nelson’s coming into a situation where everybody around him is really young,” Matthews said, per CSN Philly. “I’m the leader of the receiver group and I’m in my second year. I’m only a couple months ahead of Nelson in age, then you got Josh, who’s right there with him, one year ahead. It’s not like you have this guy who’s way older. Coop had just signed his contract a couple years ago. I even had Brad Smith to guide me along the way.

“It’s really a young group. I learned from Brad, I learned from Jeremy, things I learned from Riley. Nelson’s learning from guys who are learning. You know?”

Because the Eagles spent three picks on receivers in the first three rounds in the last two years, it’ll be interesting to see how the trio fits into Doug Pederson’s offense.

THE FREE AGENT LIST

Here are the top wide receiver free agents, according to FOX Sports’ WalterFootball.com:

  1. Alshon Jeffery
  2. Marvin Jones
  3. Travis Benjamin
  4. Kamar Aiken
  5. Rueben Randle
  6. Anquan Boldin
  7. Percy Harvin
  8. Rishard Matthews
  9. Brian Quick
  10. Leonard Hankerson

It’s unclear how likely it is Jeffery returns to the Bears, but the Chicago Tribune’s David Haugh reported last month that Jeffery “felt unhappy in Chicago” and there were points during the season he felt “isolated.” Jones said he’d like to return to the Bengals, although he made it clear he won’t take a “hometown discount.” Benjamin appears poised to return to Cleveland, while Randle wants to remain with the Giants.

THE DRAFT LIST

Here are the top wide receiver prospects in the draft, according to ESPN’s Scouts Inc., including their overall ranking:

  1. Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss (No. 17)
  2. Will Fuller, Notre Dame (No. 39)
  3. Josh Doctson, TCU (No. 43)
  4. Braxton Miller, Ohio State (No. 45)
  5. Corey Coleman, Baylor (No. 48)
  6. Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh (No. 52)
  7. Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina (No. 61)
  8. Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma (No. 79)
  9. Kenny Lawler, California (No. 90)
  10. Chris Moore, Cincinnati (No. 94)

This class isn’t top-heavy like the previous two years, but given the Eagles’ need for more talent, they could certainly use a day two or three selection on a receiver.

WHAT YOU MISSED

Breaking down the Birds’ running back situation, with daunting contracts and question marks.

The Eagles signed Najee Goode to a one-year deal on Wednesday. Details and context.

Adam Schefter and Jim Schwartz offered up takes on free agency and the Eagles’ defense.

On the temptation of bringing in former Schwartz defensive lineman and free agent Mario Williams.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

CSN Philadelphia’s Dave Zangaro looks at a few ways the Eagles could shed even more dead weight from their roster with cuts.

1. Cut DeMeco Ryans

This would be tough because Ryans has meant a lot to the team during his four seasons in Philadelphia. He even earned the nickname “Mufasa” for his veteran leadership.

But the 31-year-old inside linebacker has a cap hit of $4.5 million in 2016, the last year of his deal, and with the defense switching to a 4-3 front, he appears to be out of a starting role. Ryans would be the best fit as the MIKE in a 4-3, but that spot likely belongs to second-year player Jordan Hicks, who was having a terrific rookie season before tearing his pec.

Cutting Ryans would save $3.5 million in cap room. This is a decision the Eagles will need to make before March 11, though. On the third day of the new league year, Ryans’ $2.5 million base salary becomes fully guaranteed.

Tommy Lawlor has a feeling this year’s Eagles defense could be a return to its former dominant ways, thanks to Jim Schwartz and impressive personnel.

As long as the Eagles stay healthy, they have a chance to be outstanding up front. The LBs could be very good, but that’s not a sure thing. The secondary is the real mystery. Even there, the Eagles have potential. They might need to find a SS that can play in the box. It doesn’t feel like Walter Thurmond is a good fit for the defense we expect to see.

Scheme aside, the other aspect of having Schwartz run the defense is that he’s the team’s best DC since [Jim Johnson]. Sean McDermott was good, but learning on the job. Juan Castillo… just bizarre. Todd Bowles only had the job for part of a year and wasn’t running his scheme. Bill Davis has his limitations and worked under very challenging circumstances.

Schwartz has 9 years of experience as an NFL defensive coordinator. He was a head coach for 5 years. The man isn’t perfect, but he knows what he’s doing and understands how to teach his scheme to players and assistant coaches. There is tremendous value in that. Schwartz’s players knew what to expect from him and they had confidence that he would have them prepared for each game.

COMING UP

Adam takes a look at what Doug Pederson needs to fix, by the numbers.