Eagles have depth issues at wide receiver

Eagles have depth issues at wide receiver
August 5, 2014, 3:15 pm
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LeSean McCoy was at the podium first. When he was done, he said he was interested to see what reporters would ask Jeremy Maclin, because Maclin didn’t practice. Maclin was standing nearby. He laughed. McCoy laughed. He was busting Maclin’s chops. It was a joke, even if the Eagles' receiving situation isn’t all that funny at the moment.

Maclin — who said he has general soreness in his legs (plural) but vowed to return soon — did some half-speed routes on Tuesday and then shut it down, spending much of the afternoon watching from the sideline. Riley Cooper and Jeff Maehl didn’t even do that much. Over the last few days, the Eagles have been “a little short at receiver.” That’s how offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur put it. He wasn’t kidding.

It is early August. The Eagles won’t play a meaningful game for another month. But August will bleed into September before you know it. The roster will be trimmed to 53 men. The games will count. And Nick Foles will throw passes to … which wideouts, exactly?

During this last week or so of Eagles training camp, we’ve learned — or relearned — that the team’s depth at wide receiver gets awfully thin awfully quick. When Maclin went down with a brief scare on Monday, it was natural to flashback to last training camp when he tore his ACL and missed the season. Maclin says he’s fine. Maybe you believe it and maybe you don’t, but at least he was marginally active on Tuesday. Cooper and Maehl were not. They have ankle injuries (Cooper is still in a walking boot). Earlier this week, Chip Kelly said Cooper will be back soon but declined to elaborate.

The wide receiver competition is currently less about talent than it is about attrition and health. Stand upright long enough and you’ll get some playing time. For some of Tuesday’s practice, Arrelious Benn, Brad Smith and Ifeanyi Momah ran with the first team.  Your defending NFC East champs, everyone.

As Shurmur conceded, the Eagles are “at the point in camp where guys are just dealing with the stress on the body.” Then he tried to put a positive spin on it by employing the anticipated NFL talking points about the next guy up.

“The advantage of them being out is guys get the chance to step up and get more and more reps,” Shurmur said. “What we’re doing with them being out is developing the depth of the team. The guys that are second and third in line now become first and second. We obviously want all the guys out there all the time. The reality is, there are times when they’re not. And so the next guys up go.”

As advantages go, pressing Momah and Damaris Johnson into increased duty doesn’t seem like a terrific edge. Momah remains raw, and Johnson has almost certainly overstayed his welcome at the NovaCare Complex. If they’re on the roster this season, something will have likely gone terribly wrong.

There was concern about the Eagles’ receivers heading into training camp, even when the group was entirely healthy. In addition to coming off the knee injury, Maclin hasn’t played a snap in Kelly’s offense. Cooper acquitted himself better than expected a year ago, and posted career highs in receptions, targets, yards and touchdowns. Even so, his 835 receiving yards put him just 38th in the NFL among all pass catchers. After those two, you’re looking at a pair of rookies (Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff) and some veterans (Smith, Benn and Maehl).

Everyone from Shurmur to Kelly to LeSean McCoy has gushed about Matthews. He’s certainly been exciting in camp. But he’s a rookie. The Eagles are a long way from knowing what he can and can’t do and how much he can contribute. Double the unknown and multiply by even more questions for Huff.

Smith should make the team, but he’s more of a gadget play guy on offense. His biggest contribution is on special teams. Benn is only 25, but he’s missed 27 games in his career because of myriad injuries (two torn ACLs, a torn MCL, a concussion and issues with his neck and shoulder), and he hasn’t played in a regular season game since November 2012. Then there’s Maehl, who spent the majority of his pro career on practice squads before getting a promotion last season. He has four catches on nine targets for 67 yards and a touchdown in his career. You are forgiven if you’re a bit worried about the prospect of the Eagles playing any of them for any length of time.

The Eagles should mummify Maclin and Cooper in bubble wrap. Can’t be too careful. If either of them go down for any extended period, the receiving situation would look pretty grim.

Back to the advantage Shurmur mentioned. When the Eagles take the field in Chicago this Friday for their first preseason game, what do the coaches want to see from the pass catchers who fall behind Maclin and Cooper on the depth chart?

“We want our guys to go in and function,” Shurmur said. “Get lined up quickly. Run the right routes. When it’s time to block — block. Do all the things we ask on the perimeter. And then when it’s time, when you put the shiny pants on and the lights are bright, when the ball comes their way, can they actually make a play? Those are the things you see. Because sometimes, guys will be out here on the practice field, do an excellent job, and then when the lights are bright, not so good.”

Go in and function. Don’t make a mess in your shiny pants. Those aren’t high expectations. But that’s fine. They have to start somewhere – just so long as they don’t have to start in the regular season.

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