Chip Kelly doesn’t have a wide receiver anymore who forces defenses to play at least one safety three miles deep. He doesn’t have someone with world-class speed or the ability to turn a short catch into a bomb with one juke.
Kelly said goodbye to one of the NFL's most explosive weapons in March when he outright released DeSean Jackson, a three-time Pro Bowl wideout coming off his most productive season as a pro.
But after plucking two wide receivers early in last week’s draft, Kelly remodeled the position to fit his preferred blueprint. He might not have a bona fide game-breaker, but Kelly’s receiving crew is undeniably bigger and stronger across the board.
And if his two rookies meet expectations, the Eagles are much more balanced from top to bottom, which should make the offense even more productive.
“I'm excited about them,” Kelly said after the draft. “I think you've got two legitimate wide receivers in [Jeremy Maclin] and [Riley Cooper] outside, and then you throw the young guys in there to go along and kind of see where they are.”
Because of Maclin’s ACL injury last year, the Eagles entered last season with Jackson, Cooper, slot wideout Jason Avant and Jeff Maehl as their top four receivers. Maehl played the fourth-most snaps among receivers as he quickly overtook Damaris Johnson for the fourth spot, but the Eagles mainly attacked in their 11 personnel (three receivers, one tight end).
The Jackson-Cooper-Avant-Maehl foursome averaged 72.25 inches (6-foot-¼ inch) and a paltry 198 pounds, numbers skewed by Jackson’s 5-foot-10, 178-pound frame.
This year, a Maclin-Cooper-Jordan Matthews-Josh Huff foursome would average 73.25 inches and 207.75 pounds -- a full inch taller and nearly 10 pounds heavier than last year’s group.
Matthews, who’s tied with Cooper for tallest Eagles receiver at 6-foot-3, is expected to man the slot, giving the offense more of a size advantage inside against nickel corners, who tend to be shorter. Matthews is three inches taller and a few pounds heavier than Avant, who played exclusively in the slot and was also released in March after nine years with the club.
Avant’s hands were the team’s most reliable, and he made the tough catches, but he lacked pure speed, didn’t break tackles and didn’t produce yards after the catch.
Matthews, the former Vanderbilt star, comes with a reputation for making acrobatic catches in traffic and has more breakaway speed than Avant. He rewrote the SEC record books before clocking a 4.46 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, an impressive time given his size.
“He'll fit in beautifully in Philadelphia and in Chip Kelly's offense,” NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said. “He makes tough catches. He has a big body. He ran faster than a lot of people anticipated. The Eagles get Jeremy Maclin back. They have added Matthews and Darren Sproles. This team is going to be the first-, second- or third-leading scoring team in the league."
As the fourth wideout, Huff projects to be more productive than Maehl, although Maehl had the better college career between both former Oregon standouts. Maehl ran a 4.62 at the combine and went undrafted before signing as a rookie free agent with the Texans, where he spent two seasons but played in just three games and didn’t catch a pass.
Huff’s draft projections were all over the map, but general manager Howie Roseman envisioned the ideal scheme fit.
“We really like Josh because it's easy to see what he does in our offense, right? So it's an easy transition for us,” Roseman said. “With a guy like Josh, you see him playing the slot, you see him playing outside, you see him doing the things that we ask receivers to do, and then I know Coach has talked a lot about what we're looking for in a receiver ... and Josh Huff, he can separate because he's explosive. When I watch Josh Huff, I see explosion.”
Assuming Maclin returns to form after his second knee surgery, assuming Cooper doesn’t regress, assuming Matthews translates to the slot and assuming Huff is an upgrade over Maehl or Johnson, the Eagles should be able to withstand the loss of Jackson’s 1,332 receiving yards and ability to create matchup nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators.
And that’s not mentioning the addition of Sproles to give the passing attack another dimension, and the expected development of second-year tight end Zach Ertz.
Maybe the Eagles aren’t as explosive vertically, but they’ve got more size and more flexibility across the board. You can’t find a receiver with Jackson’s 40 time on the Broncos, Bears or Patriots, the three top-scoring teams from last year.
The X-factor is the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Arrelious Benn, who missed all of last season after tearing his ACL in training camp. Injuries have robbed Benn of fulfilling his potential as a second-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2010.
If Kelly’s sports science program can keep Benn healthy, the Eagles have the potential to add more size and athleticism to the offense, especially in the red zone.
Substituting Benn for Huff would project an average of 6-foot-2 and 212.5 pounds -- which is 1¾ inches taller than last year’s top-four and more than 14 pounds heavier.
Kelly also mentioned 6-foot-2, 212-pound special teams ace Brad Smith as someone who can contribute to the passing attack, giving the Eagles yet another bigger, stronger target for quarterback Nick Foles.
“I think with Mac and Riley outside and then throw some of the young guys in there, it'll be interesting in terms of how this whole thing shapes itself out,” Kelly said. “But I'm excited to see our wideouts play.”