Eagles wide receiver corps primed for success in 2017, but what lies beyond is a mystery

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The Eagles front office had a long list of priorities this offseason, with the most prominent being to surround Carson Wentz with playmakers. After the Birds’ receiving woes continued in 2016, with Jordan Matthews leading a stagnant group with 804 yards, it was clear they needed help. Dorial Green-Beckham had the second most receiving yards of all Eagles wideouts with 392…which is simply not good enough. Howie Roseman and company worked wonders during the winter months, not only signing prized free agent wideout, Alshon Jeffery, but stacking the position with talent. Torrey Smith was penned to a prove-it deal, while the team would go on to draft both Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson. As things stand, the grass is finally greener on the outside…but for how long?

In order to build such a dangerous wide receiver corps for 2017, the Eagles had to take risks…and one of those risks was knowing that they may not be able to carry over several of those weapons into the next season, instead relying on the conveyor belt that is the NFL Draft to build through. If we are to look at the situations of the five receivers who at this point seem best placed to make the final 53-man roster, it’s clear that the long-term future is still anything but certain.

 

Alshon Jeffery:
After signing a one-year $9.5M deal in Philadelphia and reuniting with the WR coach who helped propel him to career highs in Chicago, the future looked incredibly bright for Alshon Jeffery. But it’s also a very interesting spot to be in. If the Eagles surge into the playoffs and Jeffery explodes in form as many expect as the Eagles true number one receiver, it’s likely that he will want to return due to being one step closer to a Super Bowl. But if Jeffery shines and the Eagles don’t, then Jeffery could be looking elsewhere. All that matters is right now, and in a perfect scenario, Jeffery would re-sign with the Birds after this season in order to retain a sense of continuity…but as we’ll later learn, doing so could hamper the Eagles elsewhere.

 

Torrey Smith:
Smith ended a disappointing 2016 with just 267 yards and 3 touchdowns after signing a huge contract and failing to live up to the hype. The Eagles took a shot on the former Ravens and 49ers wideout, knowing that Joe Douglas and Andy Weidl know exactly what he’s capable of at such a young age still. The three-year deal worth $15M stunningly has just $500k guaranteed. This means that if Smith fails to re-emerge as the perennial deep threat he was in Baltimore, the Eagles can cut ties without much in the way of repercussion. If the Eagles want out after one year, there would be no cap hit for parting ways and the 2017 season would have cost the team $4.85M. On the inverse, if Smith excels in his new role with the spotlight taken off of him, those incentives have the potential to really add up and sting the Eagles. While continuity is clearly the focus here, Smith’s form may hold a lot of weight when looking at who stays and who goes after the end of next season.

Jordan Matthews:
The Eagles number one receiver of the last three years and one of the most prolific slot receivers since 2014 is now entering his contract year with the team. Howie Roseman and company decided not to sign Matthews to an extension this offseason, meaning that it’s all or nothing in 2017. The chemistry he has with Carson Wentz is evidently a huge factor…and Matthews opened up about just that in an exclusive interview for the first issue of our magazine, – = +.

“My first experience [with Carson] wasn’t as intimate at first just because he was trying to find his way. I still had a very close relationship with Sam, so I was gonna make sure at the time I had to spend most of my time getting reps with our starting quarterback. Once the trade happened with Minnesota and we knew Carson was gonna be the guy, it was like “okay well we gotta get this ball rolling.”

“I’m not the type of guy to build a relationship just because somebody is my quarterback. Youv’ve gotta know as a person as well whether you’ll mesh or not. That’s a totally different aspect. You don’t wanna be fake. This is a grown mans business. “

Mesh, they did. The duo turned up early to the team’s offseason workouts, working out alone inside the NovaCare Complex and building an early chemistry.

“There’s been a lot of QB/WR combos who weren’t friends. At the same time, I still wanted to get to know him and work out if this person is a friend, if this person is a brother. As time went on, we grew close man. I consider him a brother, we’re extremely close and he’s a great person outside of Football. The swagger, intensity and competitive- ness that he brings everyday to practice and games makes me like him that much more.”

The common consensus seems to be that now the Eagles have a cemented number one receiver and a few different options opposite Jeffery, Matthews can really excel from the slot. Defenses are no longer able to focus all of their attention on Ertz and the Vanderbilt product, because doing so leaves the likes of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith unaccounted for. If Matthew has a career year under Pederson, which is absolutely a possibility, the question then becomes how valuable is that season to the Eagles?

Would the team want to bring back Matthews on a long-term deal, giving Wentz a real core to grow with…or would they instead turn to someone like Mack Hollins, Shelton Gibson, or even Nelson Agholor, who still has some breathing room on his contract and is yet to really get slot work at the next level. After excelling over the middle at USC, Agholor was tasked with lining up outside in Philadelphia, but has been taking slot reps and impressing in the absence of Matthews during OTA’s and Minicamp.

Matthews is probably the biggest wildcard heading into this season because the decision to retain him is going to be one that very much shapes the future of the offense.

 

Nelson Agholor:
After an entrance to the NFL that has been underwhelming at best, Agholor finally looks set to break free from the chains that have held him down. The spotlight has been removed, coaching changes have worked in his favor and a newly found swagger may be just what the doctor ordered. With two years left on his rookie contract, Aggy’s future with the Eagles a little more certain…but there are still some interesting decisions to be made.

After 2017, could Agholor be looking at a crossroads depending on how everything pans out. Would the Eagles, as aforementioned, be looking to move him inside to really take full advantage of his crisp route-running and lightning footwork to juke out slot corners and linebackers? Or potentially allow him to walk down the same path as Jordan Matthews, entering his contract year and embodying a “prove-it” mentality? Of course, there are other possibilities, but these seem to be the most likely and will also be a knock-on effect of what happens to the other Eagles wideouts.

 

Best of the rest:
And all of a sudden, this is where things get interesting. Would the Eagles carry five or six receivers heading into 2017? If they do, it’s likely that rookies Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson are in the drivers seat to earn those roster spots, but if that number drops to five, then somebody is going to miss out…and that’s where an ultra competitive training camp comes in. The Eagles can’t afford to risk losing continuity at such a crucial position, but can’t overvalue it when positions like cornerback and linebacker crave some extra depth.

Even if they do carry six wideouts, there’s no guarantee that they will go to the two receivers named above. Shelton Gibson had a rocky OTA and minicamp period and despite the fact we’re yet to see players in pads just yet, there seems to be a clear (and unwarranted) spotlight now on the hands of Shelton Gibson. Behind the two rookies looking to make the roster is a pool of sharks chomping at the bit to get their chance.

From last preseason’s NFL leader in receiving yards, Paul Turner, to the likes of former QB Greg Ward Jr. and this season’s ultimate sleeper, Marcus Johnson, the Birds have plenty of options worth watching…and all it’s going to take is a strong training camp from any of these guys to really upset the apple cart.

Johnson did just that one year ago, but an injury meant that his rookie year was cut short, and the former UDFA now returns to Philadelphia after sticking to the roster following an impressive offseason. So far, Johnson has picked up where he left off, but can he do enough to sneak onto the roster? That remains to be seen.

 

So….what next?
The Eagles aren’t blessed with cap space….at all. To make life even harder for the front office, the team have 27 players entering their final contracted year. Alshon Jeffery and Jordan Matthews are two of those players. It might not be financially viable in the long-run to keep all of the receivers currently on the roster, and while the intent is to clearly bring in a “prove-it” free agent until the team are in a situation to re-enforce the position through the draft, losing someone like Jeffery would once again leave the Eagles looking for a number one wideout.

The perfect example of this would be the Oakland Raiders and the tandem of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. The Eagles need to find that one young stud to build around on the outside, but if they don’t believe he’s on the roster already, then next offseason could be just as important as this year’s.

The wide receiver position is very much subject to the Butterfly Effect. All it takes is one standout season from Alshon Jeffery or Jordan Matthews to set the tone, while a big year from Nelson Agholor, Torrey Smith or someone such as Mack Hollins could completely re-write the narrative.

There’s no doubting that the Eagles wide receiver corps will be incredibly interesting to watch in 2017…but it’s how they line up in 2018 that carries the most intrigue, especially given that the team will be heading into year three of a Super Bowl window.

 

Mandatory Photo Credit: AP Photo/Michael Perez

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