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

Nerlens Noel posts thankful message to Philly fans

Nerlens Noel posts thankful message to Philly fans

Nerlens Noel's tenure in Philadelphia wasn't characterized by a whole lot of winning, but he'll still likely be remembered fondly by Sixers fans as being one of the original members of the process.

It's always an emotional time when a fan favorite departs for another city and a new team instead of seeing the championship aspirations many had for them in Philly through to fruition.

Noel posted an emotional message to his Twitter account on Thursday evening thanking the city of Philadelphia and its fans for the support they showed him through the ups and downs. 

The tweet contained the hashtag #Philly with a couple of exclamation points with a screenshot of a note that read:

What an exciting journey it’s been… To have such an amazing city embrace a kid from Boston coming out of Kentucky the way y’all did, is something I’ll truly never forget. And even through the ups and downs I never doubted the love here and that won’t change. Thank you to everybody that’s believed in me and supported through #TheProcess.

Love! -NN4

He posted the same message on Instagram as well.

Noel was traded earlier in the day to the Dallas Mavericks for Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut, and a conditional first round pick that will likely turn into two second round picks.

Bryan Colangelo will address the media on Friday morning to discuss his rationale behind moving Nerlens.

Related:

>>Every reason why the Nerlens Noel trade was unjustifiable 

>>Video: Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid say their goodbyes 

>>Joel Embiid reacts to Nerlens trade on Twitter: 'Trust it'

Joel Embiid: With Mavs, Nerlens Noel 'to get the chance he wanted'

Joel Embiid: With Mavs, Nerlens Noel 'to get the chance he wanted'

CAMDEN, N.J. -- Nerlens Noel emerged from the trainer’s room in a red sweatshirt and made his rounds of handshakes and hugs. It would be his last time in the Sixers' training complex as a member of the team, marking the end of the longest-tenured player’s stay in Philadelphia.

The Sixers traded Noel to the Mavericks on Thursday for Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut and a top-18 protected first-round pick, according to a source (see story). He went through a portion of practice and was removed from it because of the deal. 

Noel’s now former teammates had a strong reaction to his departure. 

“Nerlens, he’s my guy,” Joel Embiid said. “He’s been my best friend since I got to Philly and I’m happy for him. He wants to start. I think in Dallas he’s going to get the chance to start and they’re going to re-sign him and they’re going to pay him a lot of money. Here it was kind of hard for him to start unless they were starting us together. But I’m happy for him. He’s going to get the chance he wanted.”

Noel’s future with the Sixers had been in question for two years as he enters restricted free agency this summer. Last season, the team struggled to find a way for him and Jahlil Okafor, both true centers, to play together. This season, the logjam was magnified when Embiid made his debut and took over the starting role. 

Noel candidly spoke out about the overcrowding at the beginning of the season but that situation was sidetracked when he missed 23 games because of injury. Once he returned, he quickly was on the short end of minutes. 

“I need to be on the court playing basketball,” Noel said in mid-December. “I think I’m too good to be playing eight minutes. Like, no, that’s crazy. That’s crazy. That’s crazy. They need to figure this s--- out.”

The Sixers did figure out his role, later making him the defensive leader of the second unit as Okafor became the odd man out. The Sixers also considered the possibility of pairing Noel and Embiid in the starting lineup, as they did with Embiid and Okafor, but that experiment played out only over a handful of minutes. 

“I’m a little bit disappointed,” Embiid said of not playing more alongside Noel. “I thought we should have tried that a little bit more. I think the few times we did, it actually looked pretty good offensively and defensively.”

Of the bigs, it seemed like Okafor would be the one moved at the deadline after being held out of two games because of trade talks. In the end, it was Noel as the one to go on Thursday. 

“He’s one of my favorite players here,” Dario Saric said. “He’s always ready for jokes, he’s always ready to enjoy every moment.” 

Noel was the only player remaining from Brown’s first season as head coach with the Sixers. Brown could not comment on the Noel trade because it was not official at the time he addressed the media. 

Ilyasova leadership missed
On Wednesday night the Sixers dealt Ersan Ilyasova to the Hawks for Tiago Splitter, a 2017 second-round pick and 2017 second-round pick swap rights. Even though Ilyasova played only 53 games for the Sixers, the veteran leader left his mark.

“He was a consummate pro,” Brown said. “He helped teach our young guys about that professionalism and helped contribute to our culture. He was good. You add those things up and we’re going to miss him.” 

Ilyasova’s departure affects those who played with him and behind him. Embiid credited Ilyasova for stretching the floor when they were in the starting lineup together. 

Saric, though, is perhaps the most impacted by the trade. Saric moved to the second unit when Ilyasova took over the starting role. He learned from his fellow international power forward, who helped him adjust to the NBA on and off the court. Saric is likely to get the nod as a starter. 

“For me, it’s hard,” Saric said. “I lost in Ersan some kind of mentor.” 

Brown also plans to play Robert Covington and Richaun Holmes at power forward at times, as well. If Covington slides over from small forward, Brown eyes Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Gerald Henderson and Nik Stauskas as players who could fill in at the three spot. 

The Sixers will resume activity on Friday morning for shootaround ahead of their game against the Wizards. They will approach that contest without familiar faces on the court. 

“I lost two good friends,” Saric said. “But this is the NBA. This is part of the business, part of the job.”