Counting Down the Eagles’ Needs: No. 6, Wide Receiver

Counting Down the Eagles’ Needs: No. 6, Wide Receiver

Free agency is right around the corner, and the draft will be here before you know it. With the Philadelphia Eagles’ offseason in full swing, we’re examining where the roster stands at each position, counting down based on team need. Check out the previous installments on the offensive line, quarterbacks, tight ends and  running backs.

In case you’re not convinced wide receiver is a pressing need for the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason, now might be the time to reconsider your stance.

Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper are both set to hit free agency in less than a month, and even general manager Howie Roseman admitted re-signing both would be “complicated,” which might as well be code for “not happening.” The Birds were second in cap space committed to receivers in 2013 according to Spotrac, and that was with Maclin and Cooper on rookie contracts far cheaper than what they will cost going forward.

Meanwhile, only DeSean Jackson is signed beyond 2014 at the position, and while we don’t anticipate it being a hot-button issue this year, he has made his desire for a new deal known. Contract is always a delicate situation with Jackson to say the least.

Regardless what you believe the front office should do about Maclin and Cooper or how you feel they should handle Jackson going forward, the Eagles must start working on getting out in front of what appear to be inevitable changes. Spending a draft pick on a wide receiver is almost mandatory. A first-round pick is not out of the question.

Fortunately, it’s a draft loaded with talent at receiver. We’ve seen one prominent mock-drafter had Philly taking Kelvin Benjamin from Florida St. in the first round, a 6’5”, 235-pound matchup nightmare. Penn State’s Allen Robinson reminds me of a poor man’s A.J. Green the way he catches the football at its highest point and could go in rounds one or two. Jordan Matthews looks the part as well, was highly productive at Vanderbilt and is creeping up draft boards after his performance at the Senior Bowl.

There are quality prospects available later as well, but the Eagles would be wise to consider one of these top talents. For one, at 6’3” and taller, any one of them would add some much-needed size to the Birds’ receiving corps.

More importantly, those three players would likely have a chance to contribute right away in 2014, if not replace somebody’s production entirely. Given the current state of the unit, that might be out of necessity.

DeSean Jackson

Jackson is scheduled to take up $35 million in cap space over the next three seasons, which isn’t a problem in itself. After all, he is coming off a career year where he came up 77 receiving yards shy of the franchise record.

For all the grief No. 10 takes from a segment of the Philadelphia fanbase, few wideouts have been as productive as Jackson during his NFL career. Since he entered the league in ’08, Jackson is one of only 11 players with at least 300 receptions, 6,000 yards receiving and 30 touchdowns. Of the players on that list, only Vincent Jackson has more yards per catch.

The issue with Djacc is something that could present itself going forward. While he isn’t likely to raise much of a stink about his contract this year, it’s not difficult to envision a standoff coming in ‘15 when he’ll have two years remaining. All of the guaranteed money from the five-year, $51 million pact has already been collected, so Jackson—somewhat rightfully—will be looking for security.

Should the Eagles play ball? Jackson will be 28 and still owed a nice chunk of change. He’ll be 30 when the current deal expires. You couldn’t blame the team for not wanting to increase its commitment with years to go, which could cause a rift between player and organization.

The way I see it, the Birds have two more years of Jackson—this one upcoming, while he’s still relatively quiet, and the following season when he starts to make his unhappiness known. After that, it’s either extend him into his 30s or trade him to a team that will.

If the decision is made to move on, the team better have a replacement already lined up by then.

Jeremy Maclin

It would be a real shame if Maclin were to depart now. I’m not sure the Eagles really know what they have in the soon-to-be 26-year-old.

Maclin hasn’t turned into a star like you might expect of a former 19th overall selection, but he’s been about as reliable a set of hands as they come. Since 2010, only 34 active players—32 wide receivers and two tight ends—have posted higher than Maclin’ 60.9 yards per game, while 26 have reeled in more than his 22 touchdown passes.

34 is admittedly a large number, but still puts him in very good company. The fact that only 22 pass-catchers have reached the end zone more frequently is impressive though considering he just missed an entire season.

The thing is, we haven’t seen what Maclin can do under ideal circumstances since 2010, when he posted his best season with 70 receptions, 964 yards and 10 touchdowns. Health issues erased his training camp and three games in ’11. Philadelphia’s offensive line was decimated by injuries and the offense predictably declined as a whole in ’12. He still posted over 60 receptions and 800 yards both seasons.

This past year, a torn ACL prevented us from seeing what he could do in Chip Kelly’s offense, with Nick Foles tossing him the football.

The thinking was a short-term deal would be best for both sides as a result of the injury. It would protect the team in the event he’s not fully recovered, while allowing the player to rebound and cash in again one or two years down the road while he’s still in his prime.

The problem is other teams are sure to have interest if Maclin is allowed to hit the market in less than four weeks, such as the New York Jets reportedly—and in their desperate need for a receiver, who knows how much they would be willing to pay. What we know is he doesn’t have a deal with the Birds yet, and if his Twitter feed is any indication, Maclin is feeling pretty unappreciated right now.

Riley Cooper

He’s slow, he has trouble beating press coverage and he had what amounts to three good games in 2013, but Philly fans sure do love themselves some Riley Cooper.

Cooper emerged as a big-play threat once Nick Foles took over under center, going over 100 yards in three of five games and hauling in six of his eight touchdown passes for the season. Few in the Delaware Valley seemed to take notice when he didn’t have anywhere near that kind of impact over the final seven weeks though. Cooper’s high the rest of the way was 74 yards and he found the end zone just two more times.

The surprising part about Cooper was he wound up being an adept deep threat, using his 6’3”, 222-pound frame to box out smaller defensive backs. With less than ideal speed though, it’s questionable whether he could match his 13 receptions of 20-plus yards.

The thing is, a team that doesn’t have a viable deep threat may be willing to pay for Cooper’s unique talent. There are multiple teams who didn’t have a single player with 13 receptions of 20 or more yards—the Eagles had three, and Maclin is perfectly capable of doing it as well.

The Eagles should only be interested in retaining Cooper if he comes cheap. He’s a replacement-level talent who profited from being in the right place at the right time after Maclin was lost to injury. The front office should be searching for an upgrade from Cooper, not extending him long-term.

Jason Avant

Avant was going to be on the roster bubble no matter what in 2014, but few people likely realize the front office may have to make a decision on the long-time Eagle soon. As Tim McManus wrote for Birds 24/7 last month, Avant is due a $1 million roster bonus on March 15, which means the team would have to cut him before then to avoid paying him at least that much.

$1 million represents roughly a quarter of Avant’s cap hit in ’14, so it’s a pretty big deal. Not so big the Birds couldn’t pay it and cut him later if they changed their mind, but it’s certainly a deterrent.

The decision may be based on what happens with respect to Maclin and Cooper in the coming weeks. If the Eagles don’t have either player under contract by then, Avant is probably a lock to be back out of necessity. If at least one is re-signed, the organization might take its chances.

It will be a sad day in Philadelphia when Avant is let go. He’s spent eight seasons in midnight green and was a good person both inside the locker room and off the field. He will be 31 though, and production-wise, ’13 was his worst year since ’08.

Brad Smith

Smith could be a legitimate option to take over Avant’s role in the slot next season. At $1.3 million in ’13, he’s a moderately-priced, short-term solution who can also contribute on special teams both as a dangerous returnman and on the kick coverage unit.

Given the importance Chip Kelly places on special teams, and the fact that Smith looked like their best kick returner on just four attempts, his roster spot seems likely.

Arrelious Benn, Damaris Johnson, Jeff Maehl

The expendables. Little to no shot at making the club next season. Will not be missed.

Previously:

No. 10, Running Back
No. 9, Tight End
No. 8, Quarterback
No. 7, Offensive Line

Future Phillies Report: The Bash Brothers are killing it in May

Future Phillies Report: The Bash Brothers are killing it in May

The Bash Brothers are operating at peak efficiency this month for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, who can't lose in May.

That's where we'll start this week's Future Phillies Report.

OF Dylan Cozens (AAA)
Cozens is having a Joey Gallo-esque season for Lehigh Valley, hitting for a low batting average (.219) with a whole lot of strikeouts (63) and homers (12). 

He's slowed down some after a torrid start to May, but in 19 games this month he's hit .311 with eight home runs, two doubles, a triple and 19 RBIs. He has six walks and 23 strikeouts.

Cozens was named International League Batter of the Week the second week of May, when he had two walk-off home runs and a game-tying, ninth-inning single.

Cozens has made some improvements against left-handed pitching but he still has a long way to go. Six of his 12 homers this season are off lefties, but he's still hitting just .175 against same-handed pitching with five walks and 30 strikeouts.

The more Triple A pitching he sees, the more comfortable he should become against veterans with good breaking balls and an actual plan on the mound. Keep in mind Cozens doesn't turn 23 until May 31.

Cozens is on the 40-man roster and will probably get a look in September. It would seem unlikely that he'd get a call-up to replace an injured outfielder before then, a relevant topic given the minor injuries this last week to Michael Saunders and Daniel Nava.

1B Rhys Hoskins (AAA)
Hoskins is the one offensive prospect we feature regularly here who I'm confident will be up with the Phillies before September. He continues to impress not just as a power hitter but as a "hitter's hitter" — a guy who controls the strike zone and has few holes.

As productive as Hoskins' April was, his May has been just as impressive. He hit .338 with six homers, 12 RBIs and a 1.063 OPS in April compared to .296 with six homers, 24 RBIs and a 1.045 OPS in May.

Hoskins had a two-homer, five-RBI game last Thursday in a rare Lehigh Valley loss, which snapped the IronPigs' 12-game winning streak.

In total this season he's hit .318 with 12 homers, 36 RBIs, nine doubles, two triples, 24 walks and 27 strikeouts. His consistent production could create an interesting scenario soon because if Tommy Joseph continues to hit, one of them could become a valuable trade piece that could bring back a starting pitcher. 

In Hoskins and Joseph, the Phillies have two powerful, young, inexpensive first basemen who project to hit somewhere in the middle of the order. Why not use an organizational strength to improve an organizational weakness?

Joseph has already shown he can hit for power at the major-league level, but Hoskins' upside seems higher because of his plate selection.

SS J.P. Crawford (AAA)
He's almost there. After 171 plate appearances, Crawford has nearly reached the Mendoza line.

Crawford's multi-hit game Friday made him 10 for 25 over his last six games with a double, a homer, six RBIs, five walks and six strikeouts.

He's raised his batting average this month from .145 to .186, and even when he's slumped he's taken his walks — 25 in 39 games.

Crawford has hit .235 this month with a .358 on-base percentage. If his pitch recognition remains consistent when he reaches the majors — and keep in mind it's a skill he's shown at every rung of the minor-league ladder — it won't matter if he hits .260, he'd still be a valuable two-hole hitter.

This is the hottest Crawford has been all season and the Phillies are hoping he can keep it up for at least another week or two.

OF Roman Quinn (AAA)
I wrote about Quinn at length on Monday, outlining the reasons why he should be called up by the Phillies (see story).

Entering play Tuesday, he had hit .333 with a .424 OBP in May, fueling Lehigh Valley's surge by contributing at the top of the order.

Quinn would, right now, be a defensive upgrade for the Phillies, and it's not as if Saunders has done a whole lot to keep his job anyway.

OF Nick Williams (AAA)
Williams has homered three times in his last six games. All three were solos, but one was a game-tying shot in the ninth inning and his home run the next day was a game-winner in the 10th.

The ninth-inning bomb went to the opposite field and was off veteran big-league closer Joe Nathan. Both were good signs — that Williams' power can travel to left-center field and that he did it against a pitcher who's had a lot of success and experience.

On the year, Williams is hitting .258 with an on-base percentage right around .300. He has six walks and 47 strikeouts. For the 700th time, that's a concern and it's probably always going to be there. To make a difference in the majors, the Phillies will need Williams to produce about 30-35 doubles and 15-20 homers per season. In that regard, the recent uptick in barreling balls is a promising development.

2B Scott Kingery (AA)
The most surprising storyline in the Phillies' farm system this season is Kingery's home run jump. The guy has 14 homers already before Memorial Day. He hit five last season.

The quick assumption would be that Kingery is taking advantage of Reading's homer-friendly ballpark, but six of the 14 homers have come on the road.

On the season, Kingery is hitting .290/.369/.665 with eight doubles, four triples, 14 homers, 28 RBIs, 17 walks and 31 strikeouts. He's also 9 for 10 in stolen base attempts. And he's committed one error all season.

This has been a breakout year for Kingery, who will make the jump to Triple A in 2017 if this continues. 

C Jorge Alfaro (AAA)
Alfaro has been striking out a lot lately. He has 27 strikeouts and no walks — you read that right — in 70 plate appearances this month.

His batting line has dropped to .281/.308/.410 with 10 extra-base hits in 146 plate appearances. 

Like Williams, Alfaro is probably never going to show enough plate selection to be a true superstar. But there's some more confidence Alfaro will be able to hit in the majors, and if he can hit .260 with power and a strong arm behind the plate, that might be enough.

RHP Sixto Sanchez (High A Clearwater)
A stiff neck has kept Sanchez off the mound since our last Future Phillies Report, but he remains the Phillies' highest-upside pitching prospect and maybe their highest-upside prospect overall. 

He has 28 strikeouts and three walks this season with a .211 opponents' batting average, and he still hasn't allowed a home run in 104 pro innings. He has a blazing fastball and above-average command, especially for an 18-year-old.

Carson Wentz building rapport with Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith

Carson Wentz building rapport with Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith

For a few weeks now, Carson Wentz has been throwing to his new weapons, Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, in an attempt to grow their chemistry.

Something was different on Tuesday.

"The biggest thing is we get comfortable on air and now all of a sudden, there's a body in the way," Smith said. "It's weird. But you have to get open against somebody. Just have to knock the rust off these next few days. A lot of us have been playing long enough. We just need to be where [Wentz] expects us to be."

On Tuesday morning, the Eagles kicked off their OTAs, the voluntary practices that lead into the mandatory minicamp in mid-June. And for the first time this spring, offense and defense went head-to-head in full-team drills (see 10 observations).

It was just the latest step in the progress of building a rapport between the quarterback and his top receivers, who were added during free agency.

"I don't think it's too tough," Jeffery said. "I think it's just working each and every day. He knows what type of player I am; I know what type of player he is. It just makes it better. Just keep working."

Wentz said in addition to on-field work, he and his new receivers (and new RB LeGarrette Blount) will be looking to sneak in as much extra time together as possible. That extra time will come in the locker room, in the training room, in the film room and in the cafeteria, wherever and whenever they can.

At least now, thanks to OTAs this week, they'll have tape against the defense to look back at and use to get on the same page.

"It's a work in progress," Wentz said. "No doubt about it. It's a work in progress with guys I've been here with a year now. It's just an ongoing process. You're putting in new plays, new routes, things are always changing. So it's a process, but I feel very comfortable with them at the same time. But again, we're still just going to continually build that relationship."

While Tuesday was just the first day of practice in a long process leading up to the season, both Jeffery and Smith showed off their respective skills.

While Jeffery is quiet off the field, he already made plenty of noise in Day 1 of OTAs.

"It's been great with him," Wentz said. "He plays on time, he knows what he's doing, his catch radius is impressive. That's the first thing that jumps out at me. I'm just looking forward to continuing to build that relationship."

Jeffery is the big receiver with a huge catch radius, while Smith is the speedier receiver, even though he still has good size at 6-0, 205 pounds.

Were both their skills on display at Day 1 of OTAs?

"Definitely," cornerback Patrick Robinson said, shaking his head.

Jeffery and Smith are still the new guys in town, but they both worked with the first team on Tuesday, while Jordan Matthews played in the slot (more on him here). (Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham worked with the twos; rookies Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson worked with the threes.)

For Matthews, playing in the slot with Jeffery and Smith outside should help him quite a bit in 2017. So the Eagles' slot receiver said he was glad to have them added to his team.

"Both of them bring a lot of production," Matthews said. "Both of them are playmakers in their own different ways. The biggest thing I like, too, is in a room full of guys, you need competition. That's going to be what elevates guys' level of play. When you bring in two guys like that, who have had production over a long period of time, and they're also willing to come out here and work during the voluntary part of the offseason, you're going to have everybody get pushed."

Matthews has spent a ton of time with Wentz over their year together and already has a great relationship and chemistry with his quarterback.

Now it's up to Jeffery and Smith to catch up. And they're off to a good start.