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Lunch Break: Getting offensive over Birds-Broncos
Riley Cooper and Jason Avant have combined for 17 catches through three games. (AP)
The Denver Broncos have quite a few top-quality receivers (see story). The Eagles don’t.
DeSean Jackson is having an excellent season. He’s second in the NFL with 359 receiving yards. He’s caught 19 passes and two touchdowns. And he has seven receptions that have gone for 20 yards or more, tied for most in the NFL. He’s a small guy, but he’s a big weapon.
After Jackson, the drop-off at wideout is significant for the Eagles. While the Broncos have three receivers (and a tight end) on pace to total more than 1,000 receiving yards, the Eagles don’t have much depth on the edges.
Jason Avant is the only other Eagles receiver with double-digit catches. Avant has 11 receptions for 139 yards and a touchdown. Avant has reliable hands and he’s good in the slot, but he’s not a big-play threat. Only 15 of Avant’s yards have come after the catch.
The rest of the receivers have been largely invisible. Riley Cooper has six catches for 68 yards and a touchdown. Damaris Johnson and Jeff Maehl, the only other active wide receivers so far, have played primarily on special teams. Neither of them have caught a pass this season.
“It just depends on how many snaps we’re getting, how much time we have to get them out,” Chip Kelly said about the wide receiver rotation. “But again, the question before about substitution -- are we going to take somebody out? I think DeSean is playing at a really high level right now. Jason Avant had a really good game for us the other night. Riley has done an unbelievable job, especially blocking on the perimeter, great red zone target for us. You have to set a depth chart, and when we set a depth chart, I tell our players, they set it all the time. Right now, our top three receivers are DeSean, Jason and Riley, backed up by those guys.”
Setting a depth chart is fine, but that doesn’t address whether the Eagles get enough production from the wideouts not named Jackson.
“Damaris, when he's gotten in there, has done a nice job,” offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. “We feel like the frontline guys that are playing right now are doing a good job as well.”
You wouldn’t expect Shurmur to do anything but laud his players in public, and yet the assertion that Johnson has “done a nice job” when “he’s gotten in there” is fairly comical. Johnson has five offensive snaps all season -- one against Washington, four against San Diego, none against Kansas City. Maehl has had only slightly more opportunities with the offense, totaling eight snaps this year (two against Washington, three each against San Diego and K.C.).
As for the frontline guys Shurmur mentioned, Jackson has played like a star. Avant has been what you’d expect -- a reliable option to catch the ball and help move the chains, if not someone who can stretch the field or scare cornerbacks. Then there’s Cooper, who despite the notion that he’s a big red zone option, still has a pedestrian stat line over three games.
Avant has been targeted 18 times. Cooper has been targeted 16 times. Divide both of those numbers by three games and you quickly realize that Avant and Cooper aren’t heavily involved in the offense. They’re bit players who have been used more as decoys and blockers than anything else.
Kelly mentioned that Jackson gets targeted the most (31 times so far) because he’s “a very talented player.” That’s true, and it makes complete sense. But defensive coordinators aren’t rubes. They know which guys are legitimate threats and which aren’t. In this case, it’s easy enough to identify which Eagles receiver opposing teams need to stop and which ones have been essentially marginalized by the Birds' play-calling.
It makes you wonder how much the Eagles will -- or already do -- miss Jeremy Maclin, a solid complement to Jackson. A year ago, Maclin led the Eagles in targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns. Where defenses previously had to account for two Eagles receivers, that’s not really the case these days.
“There’s a reason why DeSean is getting targeted more,” Kelly said. “You look at the numbers he’s put up and how people are trying to defend you and all those other things, and I think, when you’re looking at this whole thing, at the end of the day, you only have one football. Do we give it to LeSean? Do we give it to DeSean? Do we do this, do we do that? I don’t see many problems with our offense, except we’re turning the ball over.”
It’s a fair point. The Eagles' offense, ranked second overall, has been really good to date. But in a pass-first league, can the Birds continue to get by with just one productive and dangerous receiver?