There was a lull there for a minute, a brief respite from the hype. But if the waves of positive publicity surrounding Jordan Matthews rolled back just a little after the first preseason game in Chicago, they have since crashed forward again, threatening to carry everyone away.
The rookie wide receiver has been lauded during training camp and the preseason -- by his peers and his coaches. LeSean McCoy gushed about Matthews and said he “looks amazing.” Jeremy Maclin said Matthews looks like a vet. And just this week, Chip Kelly said he’s “excited” to see what Matthews can do. The head coach said his rookie looks “awesome.” That’s a lot of praise from a lot of people.
“He’s one of those guys you see every day,” Kelly said. “He’s kind of like a sponge. He wants to get better. He’s always trying to figure out new things and what to do. He’s that kind of guy. He wants more, more, more."
After Tuesday’s practice at the NovaCare Complex, Matthews stayed behind with the other receivers to get in extra work. He started by catching footballs fired at him via the Jugs machine. Then he moved on to a different drill where he stood facing a wall just a few feet away from the building. A teammate stood behind him and bounced tennis balls off the wall. The goal, without knowing which direction the ball would come from, was to catch as many as possible with either the left or right hand. Matthews did that for several minutes. He missed one. He dropped another. It was an impressive display of hand-eye coordination.
If McCoy, Maclin and Kelly are among his biggest proponents, they aren’t alone. During the offseason, Matthews worked out with Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green, two of the best receivers in the league. Matthews said his work ethic, his willingness to come to work early and stay late, is owed, in part, to watching veterans like Johnson and Green prepare in the offseason. They told him “don’t take a play off, not in practice or the game.” It’s the kind of advice you’d expect from players of that caliber, even if the Eagles would prefer Matthews to remember that the season is only just starting, and it’s a long one.
“The biggest thing with Jordan, and there are some other guys on the team like him, we have to make sure we manage him because he’s got such a high motor,” Kelly said. “Whether it’s in meetings or on the practice field, we have to make sure he understands we’re playing a 16-game season here.”
The Eagles will undoubtedly need Matthews to contribute right away. After Maclin and Riley Cooper, they’re pretty thin at receiver. Josh Huff is still recovering from a shoulder injury. Brad Smith is solid on special teams but has never been a consistent offensive receiving threat. And Jeff Maehl rounds out the group. He has four receptions for his career.
So, yeah, there’s a good chance that Matthews will be used quite a bit. That’s how it went during the preseason (though some of that was owed to injuries to other receivers). The first game against Chicago was forgettable. Matthews had four catches on seven targets for 14 yards. He played 37 snaps. No other receiver had more reps.
After that, though, Matthews performed pretty well. He played 63 snaps against New England, second most among the receivers. Matthews led the Eagles that evening with nine catches on nine targets for 104 yards. He caught two of three passes against the Steelers in 29 snaps. Maclin and Cooper were the only receivers who played more against Pittsburgh.
The Eagles will fold Zach Ertz and Brent Celek in as pass catchers. McCoy and Darren Sproles will get their targets. But among receivers, there’s a big drop off after those first three. Matthews is going to get some run, partly because he’s looked good and partly out of sheer necessity.
“The best way to learn is me,” Matthews said, “is just being out there and working through some of the good and bad times. I’m a fast learner.”