Mack Hollins

Eagles left with plenty of options in slot because of 'design of the offense'

Eagles left with plenty of options in slot because of 'design of the offense'

After sending Jordan Matthews to the Bills in a trade, the Eagles could take a committee approach at slot receiver in 2017.

It's been widely assumed Nelson Agholor would step into that vacated slot role — he took first-team reps there at practice Saturday. The third-year wideout also had a strong offseason and filled in during spring sessions while Matthews was out with knee tendinitis.

"That’s coach’s decision as far as who’s going to step up, but Nelson’s done some great things," Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz said. "Obviously, he can fly. He can roll in the slot and put some pressure on defenses."

While Agholor will no doubt continue to see plenty of work in the slot, the job isn't necessarily going to be his exclusively moving forward.

"We move so many guys around in that position," coach Doug Pederson said. "It's just kind of by design of the offense."

Matthews served as the Eagles' primary slot receiver since he was selected in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft, but lined up there less last season than in years past. That was in large part because Pederson was much more imaginative than his predecessor, Chip Kelly, mixing up personnel and formations with far greater frequency.

Under Pederson, the Eagles have been more likely to deploy running backs and tight ends from the slot. Darren Sproles, Donnel Pumphrey, Zach Ertz and Trey Burton will all take a fair number of snaps in there.

Agholor may be facing some competition in the receiver room as well. After a breakout performance in the preseason opener, Mack Hollins was also getting a look in the slot Saturday.

"We'll continue to develop him and work him in multiple spots," Pederson said. "One thing about Mack is he's a smart guy. He picks up the offense well and he understands coverage and leverage and things like that."

Hollins seems like a receiver more in the mold of Matthews. Listed at 6-foot-4, 221 pounds, he's far bigger and stronger than most of the nickel cornerbacks who would be trying to cover him on the inside.

For now, Hollins is continuing to work primarily on the outside, but his size is something the Eagles could try to take advantage of.

"This game is a bunch of matchups," Hollins said. "So if my best matchup is inside against a smaller nickel, then that’s where I’ll be, and if it’s outside vs. a smaller corner, that’s where I’ll be."

The Eagles also like the fact Agholor brings a different skill set to the position than Matthews did. Matthews' size was an asset in the middle of the field, but he lacked explosion. Agholor has the potential to become the consistent deep threat down the seam that the offense has been lacking.

“Without a doubt, they’re different skill sets," Wentz said. "He’s more of a burner, whereas J-Matt was more of that savvy possession guy underneath.

"Obviously, Jordan made plenty of plays down the field as well, they just bring a different element down the field as well."

A first-round draft pick in 2015, Agholor has been a massive disappointment through two seasons in the league, with 59 receptions for 648 yards and 3 touchdowns in 28 games. 

For what it's worth, Agholor has appeared to make strides in his development while working from the slot this year. The 24-year-old looks comfortable, and it may very well be the role he is best suited to play in the NFL.

Agholor played slot his junior season at USC when he racked up 104 receptions for 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns.

"Staying inside, you have to have a little bit more spatial awareness because there are bodies in there, a lot going on," Agholor said. "Your awareness and your understanding of zones has to be at a higher level. Outside, you kind of have a one-on-one even in some zones."

Even last season, Matthews was still the primary slot but shared the responsibility. After running 532 routes in the slot in 2015, he was down to 329 with Pederson at the helm, according to Pro Football Focus. Injuries also limited Matthews to 14 games, but that doesn't account for a difference of over 200 plays.

No matter how the plan shakes out, Agholor is fine with divvying up the snaps.

"We want to put defenses in a bind," Agholor said. "We want to find mismatches and move players around so that we keep them guessing."

Eagles preseason stock report, Week 1: Derek Barnett up, Chance Warmack down

Eagles preseason stock report, Week 1: Derek Barnett up, Chance Warmack down

It would be easy to look at the performance of the Eagles' offensive line against the Packers on Thursday and declare the unit’s stock is down. Such a strong assertion wouldn’t be entirely fair or accurate, either.

The Eagles managed to run for just 47 yards on 19 attempts – a 2.5-yard average. Green Bay was able to generate consistent pressure on quarterbacks as well, forcing Carson Wentz to work some magic on his one and only series. It was not pretty.

Fortunately, this is an example where the preseason was likely playing tricks. The Packers were blitzing on just about every play, which is unusual for an exhibition game. It also tends to be a very effective strategy against an offense that wasn’t game-planning for its opponent or running schemes specifically tailored to stop those packages.

The exotic looks Green Bay threw at a vanilla Eagles offense missing right guard Brandon Brooks explains a lot. As much as the O-line appeared to struggle, this was still far from a simulation of what a real game would look like.

With that in mind, there were still plenty of other worthwhile takeaways from the preseason opener.

STOCK UP

Derek Barnett
Green Bay’s backups were no match for the 14th overall draft pick in his NFL debut. Barnett was consistently disruptive throughout the game, registering four tackles and 2.0 sacks. He was effective rushing the passer as well as defending the run. The 21-year-old also demonstrated an ability to beat offensive tackles to the inside or outside. On one such move to the interior, Barnett made the blocker look like he was standing still, then finished with a sack.

Clearly, making the jump from the SEC to a game against NFL reserves won’t be an issue for Barnett. It’s time to see what he can do with some snaps versus starting-caliber talent next week.

Jalen Mills
If you were searching for a reason to be optimistic about the Eagles' secondary, Mills offered a beacon of hope. The second-year cornerback had tight coverage throughout, shutting down a wide receiver screen for no gain, stopping a receiver short of the sticks on third down and breaking up a pass. Mills was early on the breakup and could’ve been called for pass interference, but he was in excellent position. Even though Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers did not play, Mills’ performance was a bright spot.

And after the Eagles obtained third-year cornerback Ronald Darby from the Bills on Friday, suddenly the secondary doesn’t look too bad.

Mack Hollins
While all the talk has been about Nelson Agholor gunning for Jordan Mattews’ job, I’m not so sure it wasn’t Hollins that made the Eagles comfortable trading their starting slot receiver. Everybody saw the fourth-round draft pick stiff-arm two would-be tacklers to the ground on his 38-yard touchdown gallop. Hollins shook another tackle attempt later in the game to convert a third down, part of his four-catch, 64-yard effort.

In fact, Hollins looked like a more explosive Matthews on Friday. The rookie could be headed for a far bigger role than anybody would’ve imagined in April.

Bryce Treggs
Treggs was beginning to stand out at training camp heading into this game, and it carried over in a competitive setting. The second-year wideout led all players with seven receptions for 91 yards, catching all but one pass that came his way. We knew Treggs had speed, and that was on display when he hauled in a 38-yard bomb. Perhaps more impressive is the growth he’s shown on underneath and intermediate routes, demonstrating more versatility than a year ago.

The wide receiver position is crowded, but Treggs is making a strong case that he belongs in the mix.

Carson Wentz
This might seem too obvious, but watching Wentz stand calmly in a collapsing pocket, elude pressure and make multiple perfect throws on the move on third and fourth downs only instills more confidence in the franchise quarterback. Packers linebacker Clay Matthews was wreaking havoc in the Eagles' backfield, but the second-year signal caller kept the chains moving, and eventually hit on the big catch-and-run to Hollins.

Wentz didn’t even have his full complement of weapons on Thursday, going 4 for 4 for 56 yards and a score while Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and Darren Sproles all sat out. Imagine what the 24-year-old signal caller could do once everybody is on the field.

STOCK DOWN

Chance Warmack
It looked like Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland still has a long way to go with his offseason reclamation project. Warmack often seemed confused about his assignments on Thursday. To be fair, Green Bay blitzed a ton – unusual for preseason – for which the Eagles did not scheme, and we don’t necessarily know who’s supposed to block who on a given play. Yet, there were plenty of occasions when Warmack didn’t block anybody at all, or flat out lost one-on-one battles.

Warmack started at right guard, where he hasn’t practiced a ton with the Eagles. But he wasn’t much better when he moved back to left guard, against the second-team defense no less.

Donnel Pumphrey
It was difficult to evaluate the touches Pumphrey got in his NFL debut. There was no room to run, no chance to make a move on just about every pass that came his way as he finished with 17 yards from scrimmage on nine total touches.

Pumphrey’s lack of production wasn’t really the problem, either. The fifth-round draft pick fumbled on his first carry of the game – though he was ruled down – and appeared to run his route incorrectly on an interception. He also muffed a punt, but was able to recover. Maybe it was simply a case of rookie jitters, but after missing time in training camp with a hamstring injury, Pumphrey needed to show why he deserves to be in the mix at running back. Didn’t happen.

C.J. Smith
Smith endured a particularly rough series in the second quarter. First, he was beaten on a short slant on 3rd-and-4, the exact same type of play the 24-year-old corner scolded himself for not making in practice last week. Two plays later, Smith bit on a double move, giving up a 20-yard touchdown pass to Packers wide receiver Jeff Janis.

To his credit, Smith exhibited a short memory on the following series and broke up a pass, finishing with one tackle and one deflection. Nonetheless, consistency remains an issue. With the Eagles bringing in Darby the next day, this looks like the end of any conversation about Smith competing for a starting job.

Thanks to newly-found WR depth, Jordan Matthews was expendable

Thanks to newly-found WR depth, Jordan Matthews was expendable

As rookie Mack Hollins stiffed-armed would-be tacklers out of his way to the end zone on Thursday night in Green Bay, he also might have sealed the deal to send Jordan Matthews to Buffalo. 

While that's probably a bit of an overstatement, Hollins' emergence, as well as the overall depth of the Eagles' receiving corps made Matthews expendable — for the right price. 

So Howie Roseman on Friday sent Matthews, along with a third-round pick in 2018, to Buffalo for cornerback Ronald Darby. 

"Last year at this time, from where the group was," Roseman said, "it would have been hard to do."

A year ago, Matthews was the only real receiver the Eagles had. He led a group that included Nelson Agholor, Dorial Green-Beckham, Josh Huff, Bryce Treggs and Paul Turner. 

Roseman spent this past offseason flipping the unit from a team weakness into a strength. He went out and signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in free agency and then drafted a couple of receivers in the spring. 

He did such a good job that their top receiver from a year ago became superfluous. 

"When you talk about the production Jordan has had, which has been really historically good for a Philadelphia Eagle, you have to be confident that other people can pick up that load," Roseman said. "We go with the information that we have since they’ve been in Eagles uniforms and that wide receiver group has been tremendously competitive throughout the spring and summer. We know we were going to have tough decisions to make."

Earlier in training camp, NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah — who has ties in the Eagles' front office — said Agholor would become the team's slot receiver, but he didn't know what that meant for Matthews. It turns out, it meant that Matthews was getting shipped out. 

Agholor, the former first-round pick, has had a disappointing start to his career. But now it seems like he's poised to take over in the slot for his recently-moved biggest advocate. Agholor has been impressive during training camp and should now get his chance to produce inside, a position that seems to better suit his abilities. 

"Obviously, Nelson's had a really good spring and the young players have taken a step up, which is a great testament to our coaching staff," Roseman said. "We're excited about some of their futures."

While fifth-rounder Shelton Gibson has struggled during his first few months in the NFL, fourth-round pick Hollins from North Carolina has thrived. He's been impressive throughout the spring and summer. 

And then on Thursday night, he took the next step, grabbing a pass from Carson Wentz and taking it 38 yards for a score, just the day before Matthews was dealt. 

"Mack, since the day he's been here, has been tremendously consistent," Roseman said. "He's obviously a big kid with good speed. But Coach (Mike) Groh and our offensive coaching staff have done a great job with him on his routes, consistently catching the football. And really overall, when you look at that group, we have a bunch of young players that we're excited about."