Eagles have depth issues at wide receiver

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Eagles have depth issues at wide receiver

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.

Other RBs thriving, but Ryan Mathews (ankle) still 'the guy' when healthy

Other RBs thriving, but Ryan Mathews (ankle) still 'the guy' when healthy

Kenjon Barner has the third-most runs in the NFL of 14-plus yards despite having just 14 carries all year.
 
Wendell Smallwood ran for 79 yards and a touchdown Sunday in the first extended playing time of his career.
 
Despite their gaudy stats, Ryan Mathews will be the Eagles’ featured running back when he’s healthy, head coach Doug Pederson said Monday.
 
“I think we just continue the same way, really,” Pederson said. “When Ryan is healthy, he’s the guy, and then we’ll mix Darren (Sproles) in there and you saw what Wendell can do and we know what Kenjon’s all about.”
 
Mathews, who has been injury prone throughout his career, did not play after two early carries Sunday in the Eagles’ 34-3 win over the Steelers at the Linc.
 
Pederson said Mathews’ left ankle — originally injured in July, before training camp even began and then aggravated in the season opener against the Browns — is still bothering him.
 
“With that thing, that ankle, it’s something that for him it never loosened up (Sunday) and was stiff and so again (we) just opted on the side of caution more than anything else,” Pederson said.
 
Mathews gained minus-five yards on two carries in the first quarter and didn’t play again.
 
He's rushed for three touchdowns this year but is averaging only 3.2 yards per carry — 36th out of 40 backs with 20 or more carries this year.
 
Meanwhile, Smallwood is averaging 4.8 yards per carry, eighth-highest in the NFL, and Barner, with just 14 carries, has four runs of 14 yards. He’s averaging 6.1 yards per carry but doesn’t have enough to qualify for the league leaders.

Although Barner has the 58th-most carries in the NFL, only LeSean McCoy and Isaiah Crowell have more runs of 14 or more yards.
 
Sproles has been his usual electriyfing self in the receiving game and returning punts, but he’s averaging just 2.7 yards per carry.
 
Since opening day last year, Sproles is at 3.6 per carry — 50th of 52 backs with at least 100 carries over the last two seasons.
 
Pederson said despite Mathews’ injury history — he started more than nine games twice in his first six seasons — he has no problem with the workload he gave him in Cleveland. Mathews had 22 carries against the Browns, his second-most since 2013.
 
“I think that’s a good number for him, honestly, and then for everyone else to get a few touches after that we’re on track,” Pederson said.
 
“It’s kind of with Carson (Wentz), I don’t think you ever want to go into a game thinking you want to throw it 50 times. If you manage it and keep it around 30 and have a successful running game, I think that’s a good balance.”
 
How much Barner and Smallwood will work in once Mathews returns remains to be seen.
 
But it’s hard to argue with their production.
 
“Everybody’s a little different runner,” Pederson said Monday, a day after the Eagles improved to 3-0.
 
“Wendell did an excellent job between the tackles last night, sort of downhill, Kenjon sort of off-tackle, and of course Darren can do everything.
 
“So we’ll still keep the rotation the same, we’re not going to change much that way, and just want to get everybody in the football game.”
 
It’s tough to put together a running back depth chart for this team. Mathews had the most carries against the Browns, Sproles had the most against the Bears and Smallwood the most against the Steelers.
 
Last time the Eagles opened a season with three different backs leading the team in attempts was 1989, when Mark Higgs had 13 carries in the opener vs. Seattle, Anthony Toney led the way a week later with nine carries against the Redskins (that was the huge comeback win from a 20-0 deficit) and then Heath Sherman had a team-high 16 carries a week later against the 49ers (when Joe Montana threw four touchdown passes in the fourth quarter).
 
How similar this year turns out to 2003 and the original Three-Head Monster of Duce Staley — now the Eagles’ running backs coach — Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter will sort itself out after the bye.
 
“It’s good to have that kind of depth at that position with as many touches collectively as a group that we’re going to get each game and the wear and tear on that position,” Pederson said. “It’s great to get that many guys in the game.”
 
The Eagles certainly do seem high on Smallwood, the only back in the group that Pederson didn’t inherit from Chip Kelly.
 
Smallwood missed most of training camp with a quad injury and concussion but has been very good since he’s been healthy.
 
“He’s much like Carson in how he prepares during the week,” Pederson said.
 
“We’ve been fortunate with our young players ... and how they work and how they handle themselves on and off the football field, and he’s done a great job in practice, he’s put himself in a position to help us, and it’s great to see him.
 
“We saw it early in the spring, we saw it in training camp before the injury.”

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Eagles head coach Doug Pederson says Carson Wentz’s prep is ‘Peyton Manning-ish’

Eagles head coach Doug Pederson says Carson Wentz’s prep is ‘Peyton Manning-ish’

At 8 a.m. on Sunday, eight and a half hours before game time, Jordan Matthews was in the team hotel, going to get breakfast when he ran into Carson Wentz.

But the 23-year-old quarterback wasn’t interested in food at that particular time. He was going to watch film.

“Everybody thinks that’s like a crazy thing,” Matthews said on Sunday night. “That’s his standard.”

This is just the latest example of Wentz’s obsession with football and film study. Since the No. 2 overall pick arrived in Philadelphia, and especially since he was named the Week 1 starter, we’ve been regaled with stories of his preparation and drive. The anecdotes of Wentz’s arrival before the sun to watch film have flowed.

“It’s Peyton Manning-ish,” Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said on Monday, as the team heads into its bye week with a 3-0 record.

“And you hate to label, you don’t want to put labels on guys. But that’s how Peyton prepared and that’s how these top quarterbacks prepare each week. And he has that now as a young quarterback and that will just carry him throughout his career.”

When asked if Wentz’s film study habits reach obsessive levels, Pederson said that notion was “accurate.”

“He loves watching tape,” Pederson said. “I know I’ve mentioned he and the quarterbacks, Chase [Daniel] and Aaron [Murray], are in here at 5:30 in the morning and they’re exhausting the tape. He’s constantly, I hear him in the building talking about plays and routes and protections.”

Aside from Wentz’s just putting in the time during film study, his unique ability to recall plays quickly has given him a huge advantage during his first three games.

When asked if Wentz’s memory is photographic, Pederson said he thinks it is.

In between series, Wentz and the coaching staff are able to go over plays on their Surface tablets. They go over plays and then when he’s on the field, he recognizes a defensive front or coverage and can get the offense in a different play.

Through three games, Wentz’s preparation and memory have helped the Eagles get off to a quick 3-0 start.

“He’s a different player that way,” Pederson said. “He’s much like our last quarterback, Alex Smith, in Kansas City. It’s the same type of memory. For a young kid to do that, it’s pretty special.”

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