Eagles Training Camp Preview: Better or Worse at WR?

Eagles Training Camp Preview: Better or Worse at WR?
July 18, 2014, 2:15 pm

As the Philadelphia Eagles prepare to open training camp on July 25, we examine whether the team is better or worse than last season at each position. We continue at wide receiver.

 

Before we begin, just want to send a quick shoutout to Andrew Haines of Andrew Haines Design & Illustration for sending over this sweet graphic for our Better or Worse series. It's a step-up, to say the least.

 

BETTER

Jeremy Maclin

All Maclin has to do is play in 2014, and it would be better outcome than last season. He didn’t so much as catch a pass or appear in a game after being struck down by a torn ACL in training camp.

Maclin won’t be better in 2014 merely by default, though. There are reasons to believe the 26-year-old wideout is on the verge of a career year, provided he’s healthy.

After all, who in Philadelphia’s No. 2 offense didn’t put up personal bests in head coach Chip Kelly’s first NFL season? DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and Nick Foles all wound up in the Pro Bowl with out-of-this-world productivity. It stands to reason Maclin is next in line for the Kelly bump, and could finally eclipse 1,000 yards receiving in a season.

Especially because for the first time since he was taken with the 19th overall pick in the draft, Maclin is the Eagles’ feature receiver. No longer must he stand in Jackson’s shadow or split targets. Maclin is the No. 1 option now.

Maclin’s best season came in 2010, when he hauled in 70 passes for 964 yards and 10 touchdowns. In Kelly’s offense, I would be surprised if Maclin didn’t approach 90 catches and 1,200 yards, minimum, over a full 16-game season.

 

Slot Receiver

Technically, rookie Jordan Matthews is a total unknown. The kid has never played a down in the NFL, so for all anybody knows, he could be a bust.

One thing is for sure, however, and that is Jason Avant wasn’t cutting it as an option in the passing game anymore. Avant was one of the few players in Philly’s offense whose numbers didn’t increase under Kelly. In fact, 38 receptions and 447 yards were five-year lows for the eight-year veteran.

Avant’s decline wasn’t a huge surprise. He turned 31 this year and was never a burner to begin with. He was bound to lose a step sooner or later.

I think we can safely say Matthews is a far better option at this point—perhaps better than Avant ever was. Matthews stands 6’3”, 212 pounds. The second-rounder’s 40-time clocked in the 4.4s and he was among the strongest receivers to participate at the combine. He was super productive in college, recording 206 catches, 2,800 yards and 15 touchdowns over his final two seasons at Vanderbilt. Oh, and he has a reputation for being one of the hardest workers you’ll ever meet.

I’ll take Matthews over Avant right now, no questions asked. Even if Matthews doesn’t live up to the hype, approaching Avant’s line shouldn’t be overly difficult.

 

Depth

Damaris Johnson and Jeff Maehl were two of the wide receivers the Eagles carried on their 53-man roster last year. Think about that for a moment. A pair of undrafted free agents who had 19 catches between them going into last season made up two-fifths of the entire unit.

Either Johnson or Maehl might be able to squeeze out a spot again this year, but probably not both. There’s a lot more competition on the back end of the roster this summer.

Assuming everybody stays healthy, starters Maclin and Riley Cooper along with second- and third-round rookies Matthews and Josh Huff will all be on the team. That leaves nine players vying for one, maybe two openings max.

Brad Smith seems to hold the inside track for a job. Signed midway through last season, the veteran can line up at receiver or in the backfield and contributes on special teams. Arrelious Benn is another name to watch, as the Eagles shipped a sixth-round pick to Tampa Bay last year to acquire the oft-injured receiver. Ifeanyi Momah, a raw 6’7” wideout with blazing 4.4 speed, is a dark horse to follow as well.

One of the reasons depth was an issue last year were the ACL injuries to Maclin and Benn, so there’s no guaranteeing health issues won’t rear their ugly head again. But heading into camp at least, the back end appears to have much more talent and competition than a year ago.

 

WORSE

No DeSean Jackson

I’m of the opinion the Eagles were completely justified in letting Jackson go if he gave the organization even half the problems we wound up hearing about. Bickering with coaches, the constant lobbying for a new contract, questionable off-field activities and associations, a general me-first attitude, you name it. Any two of those together could be grounds for termination.

That’s all well and good, but there’s no denying the franchise lost a unique talent when it released Jackson, a 27-year-old, three-time Pro Bowler coming off a career year. You can’t subtract 82 receptions, 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns from an offense for nothing in return and call it a positive move, can you?

 

THE SAME

Riley Cooper

Honestly, “the same” might be a little generous for Cooper. Regression is actually more likely in two key areas: yards per reception and receptions of 40 yards or more. Coop ranked third and tied for sixth in the NFL in those two categories, respectively.

To his credit, Coop is a surprisingly effective deep threat. For that matter, he’s largely only effective down the field. There’s little doubt he can continue to exploit smaller corners in one-on-one situations in Kelly’s offense.

Regardless, repeating 17.8 yards per catch and six receptions of 40 or more is a tall order for anybody, let alone for a receiver who doesn’t possess high-end speed.

The evidence would seem to indicate Cooper’s regression had already begun last season. Over the Eagles’ final seven games, including their playoff loss, Cooper averaged 13.9 yards per catch and didn’t register a single reception over 40 yards.

Some of Cooper’s production last season was clearly an anomaly, and the 3.6 receptions, 49.7 yards 0.3 touchdowns per game he averaged over the final seven contests was likely closer to the truth. Don’t expect much in the way of continued development, either, as he’s fairly limited athletically. Coop is a replacement-level No. 2 receiver, which is fine—it’s just all that he is.

 

THE UNKNOWN

Maclin’s Knee

There used to be a time when a torn ACL could derail an athlete’s career. Nowadays, players are expected to make a full recovery in most cases.

Maclin has been back working with his teammates since the spring, but fair or unfair, there are going to be lingering doubts about his condition until the games start. The fact that it wasn’t Maclin’s first time with that ACL only adds to the suspense surrounding his comeback.

The good news nearly a full year has passed since the surgery, so by the time the season gets underway in September, Maclin should be pretty close to 100 percent. Hearing from fans, though, I know some people just need to see it to believe it.

 

BETTER OR WORSE

Better. Let’s phrase the question this way: would you rather have Jackson and Avant or Maclin and Matthews? I don’t believe it’s even all that close. A healthy Maclin should approach, if not surpass, Jackson’s productivity in a feature-receiver role, while Matthews represents a clear upgrade over a 31-year-old Avant without ever having stepped foot on an NFL field. Add the anticipated improvement in depth at the position, and overall, the unit appears to be better off.

 

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