Eagles Training Camp Preview: Wide Receivers

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

Leading up to training camp on July 25, we’ll have a position-by-position preview of the Eagles’ roster. We have already covered the defensive linequarterbacksoutside linebackersrunning backsinside linebackers and cornerbacks. Now it’s on to the wide receivers.

The pressing question: Can this unit thrive minus DeSean Jackson?

This is obviously one of the major story lines heading into the season.

A lot has to go right. Jeremy Maclin needs to regain pre-ACL form and stay healthy for the majority of the season. They can’t afford to lose him for a significant stretch. Riley Cooper has to follow up his breakout campaign with another strong showing, and prove that he can excel even without Jackson opposite him. At least one rookie needs to step up and play a big role. There is plenty of buzz around second-round pick Jordan Matthews. Josh Huff, who was coached by Chip Kelly at Oregon, has some familiarity with the offense. History, though, hasn’t been kind to rookie receivers by and large. There are exceptions — like Keenan Allen last year — but the odds are against a first-year wideout putting up big stats, as Brian Billick notes:

Wide receiver has become one of the toughest positions for rookies to adapt to in the pros. There are a lot of challenges that factor into this: eluding press coverage, getting separations on a break, running disciplined routes (both in terms of positioning and timing) and mastering the myriad sight adjustments and choice routes that are a big part of the modern pro game. Those are all very difficult aspects of the process. So is gaining the trust of your quarterback.

Maybe Matthews quickly gains that trust, matches the hype and explodes onto the scene. Maybe a healthy Maclin, plugged into a system that is ultra kind to skill players, will have no issues taking over the primary receiver post. Maybe Cooper is coming into his own.

There are a lot of maybes — too many to feel totally comfortable with the state of the receiver position.

Roster battles

The Eagles carried between five and six receivers on the roster last season.Maclin, Cooper, Matthews and Huff will almost certainly occupy four spots.  The next slot could very well go to Brad Smith, who ran with the first team as the slot receiver for much of the spring. If so, that leaves Arrelious Benn, Ifeanyi Momah, Jeff Maehl, Damaris Johnson, B.J. Cunningham, Quron Pratt, Will Murphy and Kadron Boone competing for a place on the team.  

Benn has had trouble staying healthy but fared pretty well during OTAs. Receivers coach Bob Bicknell said he’s anxious to see him in a game setting. The 6-7 Momah looked much improved from a year ago. I can see him being a camp darling. Maehl was a contributor on special teams last year, finishing with six tackles.

One thing I think

Speaking on the release of Jackson back in late April, Jeffrey Lurie said that Kelly made it very clear to him that “for us to get better, we needed to take a step back and reconfigure the wide receiver position…It just was not a good fit for what he asks wide receivers to do.”

Kelly is the architect and if he sees a piece that doesn’t fit the vision, he has the authority to remove said piece. It might be the right move for the long-term build but there is also a good chance that the receiving corps takes a “step back” as a result of this decision in the short term.

I am a believer in Kelly and his system. But how many examples are there of a team removing one of its top players and being better for it?  That’s not easy to pull off, even for the smartest of coaches and sleekest of schemes.

I think the Eagles have left themselves thin at receiver for 2014 and will need good health, quick development from their young wideouts and assistance from the other skill positions to avoid going backwards on offense.