The next installment of our Ultimate Training Camp Preview series takes a look at arguably the most exciting position on the roster. The Eagles battled long and hard during the offseason to add as much offensive weaponry for Carson Wentz as possible. Prized free agent, Alshon Jeffery, was joined by Torrey Smith as the two big names to join the group, giving the Eagles legitimate weapons outside. The team would go on to draft Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson, while a slew of UDFA’s from this year and 2016 are all looking to make their names.
The biggest addition however won’t catch a single pass next season…as renowned WR coach Mike Groh joins the Eagles to help rid them of previous curses, and instill an era of dominance and overall receiving prowess and development. How’s that going to shakeout? Let’s take a look…
The cream of this year’s free agency crop, Alshon Jeffery signed with the Eagles earlier this offseason, much to the amazement of fans. It may only be a one-year deal, but that’s all the Birds’ are hoping it will take to surge them into contention and provide enough pudding to convince Jeffery that playing in the City of Brotherly Love is his best long-term option.
For the first time since the days of Jeremy Maclin, the Eagles have a dominant outside threat. Not only will the presence and sheer athleticism of the former Chicago Bear be of extreme value to the Birds in terms of production, but with teams now unable to focus all their efforts on a singular receiver (Ertz or Matthews), it should theoretically open up the rest of the field for Carson Wentz.
While his shortened 2016 campaign saw Jeffery rack up 821 yards, a franchise quarterback and the WR coach who helped him amass both 1,000 yard seasons may just help Jeffery have a HUGE year. One that could mimic his 2013 season in which he had 89 receptions, 1,421 yards, and 7 touchdowns, and dominated the NFC North with his play.
That all starts in Training Camp. So far, Jeffery has been nothing short of impressive. Eye-popping catches, athletic dives, and the mentality that sees him take every reception to the endzone, the 6’3 target has hit the ground running. It’s clear Jeffery is the Eagles number one option…and if he can continue to set the example as he has so far, then who knows what the future holds?
One thing worth watching will be how physical he gets with rookie CB, Rasul Douglas. The two developed quite the respectful rivalry, sharpening each other’s skillsets and getting competitive during OTA’s. When the pads go on…who’s going to have the upper hand?
The Eagles second free agent WR signing may be the most intriguing. Smith was signed to a slightly longer 3-year deal, but with the Eagles holding all the leverage. This means if Smith, like his last deal in San Francisco, doesn’t perform as required, the Eagles won’t be penalized for parting ways with him. Smith very much signed a prove-it deal with the Eagles…but if there’s anybody that knows how dangerous he can be, it’s Joe Douglas.
During his time with the Ravens, Douglas saw Smith amass 3,591 yards and 30 touchdowns, giving Joe Flacco a true down-field threat. Now, with the weight of a hefty contract and the expectations that go along with it, removed from his shoulders, Smith is in a position where he can run rampant as he once did in Baltimore.
When it comes to Training Camp, there’s one goal in mind for Torrey Smith; secure the starting role. He’ll have stiff competition in the way of a resurgent Nelson Agholor, but it’s on the shoulders of Torrey Smith to earn the number 2 spot opposite Alshon Jeffery.
It’s incredibly easy to forget that Smith is just 28-years old despite having 7 years worth of NFL experience. The ceiling is high and the stage is set, but will he do enough to emerge from the battle with Agholor as the starter?
Since entering the NFL, Matthews has been nothing but productive working out of the slot. The Eagles leading receiver in each of the last two season’s, Matthews was very much the group’s leader, despite being so young himself. As aforementioned, the new additions should really help open the floodgates for a wealth of production this season…and for Matthews, it’s needed.
The former Vanderbilt receiver is entering his final contracted year, and the Eagles have opted against working on a contact extension, meaning that it’s really JMatt’s last chance to prove that he’s worth the investment for the Eagles to have a consistent target over the middle.
His chemistry with Wentz is undeniable and has been ever since Training Camp began last offseason, with the two arriving to the NovaCare Complex early in order to get some extra work in. The relationship has blossomed so much, that Wentz gave one of his Dog’s puppies to his leading wide receiver.
As we enter Training Camp, Matthews has missed some crucial time due to an ankle-injury…all while Nelson Agholor has been shining in the slot reps he’s been given. While his roster spot shouldn’t be in doubt, Matthews will need to hit the ground running in order to make sure his production only rises when the regular season rolls around. It will be interesting to see if Wentz still throws to Matthews on a regular basis, or if he has a new favorite target in Pederson’s Offense.
It’s funny how just a few short months can change the outlook of one player’s career. At the end of 2016, the media and fans alike were worried about Agholor and the mental hurdles he had to overcome during his sophomore year…one that had breakout written all over it. Agholor underwhelmed for the second consecutive season and the “drops” issue just wouldn’t go away.
But fast forward to 2017, and add in Mike Groh, the team’s new WR coach…and what you have is an entirely new outlook. A player exuding confidence both on and off the practice field, and a player who did more than steal the spotlight during OTA’s and Minicamp, he redefined it’s shine. There was no shadow looming over Agholor…and all of a sudden, the pieces fell into place.
With the pressure of being a number one receiver now removed, and a receiver coach hired who can help cultivate every last ounce of potential that the crisp route runner possesses, Agholor may be the player with the highest upside heading into Training Camp. If you’re looking for a Training Camp darling…Agholor may be the odds-on favoirte.
One of two receivers drafted by the Eagles this year, Gibson was very much in the shadow of Mack Hollins, his fellow rookie wideout during OTA’s. With some heavily (and wrongly so) documented drops, Gibson seemed to cause a few concerns early on…but when camp opens, it’s game time.
Despite running a 4.5 (which is great in itself), it is his area quickness that makes him so dangerous, yet intriguing for the right offense. In 32 games for WVU, he had 1,898 yards, averaging 22.6 yards per catch..and for good measures, 17 trips to the end zone. Needless to say, Gibson could help boost the passing game, and have QB Carson Wentz going long. The 5’11,191 lbs, wideout caught 43 passes for 951 yards last season..but interestingly, he was targeted on deep looks 29 times. Of the 17 that were labelled “Catchable”, he hauled in each and every one for 726 yards and a score. In the last two seasons alone, 36% of his receptions went for 25 yards or more.
It’s safe to say that when the going gets tough…the drops aren’t dropping. One can only hope that a competitive and intense Training Camp brings the best out of the deep threat, as if it doesn’t…the Birds’ have plenty of other receivers chomping at the bit for an opportunity.
With their first pick on the final day of the 2017 NFL Draft, the Eagles selected North Carolina wideout Mack Hollins as their 118th overall pick. A collar bone injury held Hollins back in 2016, as he received for 309 yards and four scores in the seven games he did play. Many regarded Hollins as a huge steal for the Eagles, and when he stormed onto the field during OTA’s, making plays left right and center, it was easy to see why. For Hollins however, it was business as usual.
In 2015, he averaged 24.8 yards per reception and recorded eight touchdowns and 745 yards on 30 targets. Not only is Hollins 6’4, but he also has blistering speed for his size, running a 4.53 40-yard dash time at the combine. From Bryce Treggs to Dorial Green-Beckham, the Eagles have craved a deep threat and a redzone target for quite some time now..and with the long-term futures of Jeffery and Smith still cloudy, Hollins could be the perfect compliment to an already dynamic WR corps..the question is, will he?
With DGB out of the equation and the receiver competition so intense…Hollins is going to need to pick up where he left off at Mandatory Minicamp and simply attack Training camp and preseason. The former UNC standout may be one of the best placed wideouts heading into camp in terms of securing a roster spot, but needless to say…he has to keep impressing.
What can we expect from Hollins? Big plays, big catches, big waves. This is one player you’ll want to keep your eyes glued to when attending open practices.
Treggs was signed as an undrafted free agent after being waived by the Niners shortly before the start of the 2016 season. It took a while for the rapid receiver to work his way into the rotation, but a highlight catch against the Giants suddenly pushed him into the wideout picture. Unfortunately after that, things would begin to stagnate.
The problem is that Treggs wasn’t consistent enough. Deep shots were taken and Treggs was targeted in big-plat situations (albeit quite rarely), but the lack of production (3 receptions for 80-yards) clearly led the Eagles to do everything possible to find that speedy deep-threat who can stretch the field. The journey isn’t over yet for Bryce Treggs, but it’s a tall Mountain to climb.
Preseason will be the biggest opportunity for Treggs to show his true value, but to earn those reps, he has to shine when the pads go on next week. He’s very much gone under the radar at this point, but nonetheless, he still has the explosiveness that the Eagles crave…but can Mike Groh unlock it?
Signed as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Texas last year, Marcus Johnson was one name constantly being spoken about. The 6’1, 207 lbs, prospect was turning heads at Training Camp…until an injury cut the cord on his rookie year. However, the Eagles liked him enough to bring him back onto the practice squad and keep him around for one more year. So now, knowing that the Eagles have seen something in his skillset, Johnson is ready to repeat history.
After amassing 793 yards and 4 scores during his time at Texas, Johnson showed the Eagles that his deep speed could be of value, as well as his chip-on-the-shoulder mentality. Those same traits were present throughout OTA’s, and once again Johnson’s name was consistently associated with tough catches and big plays.
This will be Johnson’s first full offseason with the team if he can stay healthy…and if he makes it to preseason, Johnson may be one of the hottest underdogs on the roster. If he isn’t, he’s certainly a contender for a player carrying the most momentum heading into Training Camp.
Keep an eye on Marcus Johnson when camp opens…if he hasn’t burst out of view by the time you blink.
Greg Ward Jr.
Greg Ward Jr. may be the most interesting receiver on the roster. After trying out with the team, the Eagles decided to give Ward a shot and keep him around. But surprisingly, Ward’s beginnings weren’t established on the outside.
The 5’11,190 lbs, athlete was actually a signal-caller for the University of Houston…and a very good one at that. Ward Jr. registered the most rushing yards by a QB in Houston history, tying the record for most rushing touchdowns. In fact, during the 2015 season, Ward was the only quarterback not named Deshaun Watson to rush for 1,000 yards and throw for 2,000. Ward has the perfect frame for a wide receiver, but can he make the transition? Well, he was one of the names placing himself in the coaches good books after rookie minicamp, making some big catches during the individual drills.
There may be no bigger underdog on the Eagles roster than Greg Ward Jr. but the team is no stranger to this tale. Paul Turner, Rasheed Bailey, G.J Kinne (who also converted from QB) are just some of the names who have flourished during Training Camp and preseason. If Ward Jr. is going to be next, he’s going to have to shine against a cornerback corps that is fighting its own battle.
Ward will be an interesting name to keep an eye on. As a former quarterback, the understanding of the position, timing and route concepts will only help in his transition…but can Ward Jr. stun the world and make the final roster?
Last year’s preseason darling returns to pick up where he left off this year. Turner captivated fans across Philadelphia last offseason, leading the NFL in preseason receiving yards and eventually sticking on the Eagles practice squad. Turner would be called up as depth thinned later in the year, building on the chemistry established with Wentz to receiver for ( ).
This year, the competition is tougher than ever for the slightly undersized slot receiver. With Jordan Matthews the clear leader for the starting role, the likes of Shelton Gibson and Mack Hollins could both be fighting for a spot in the receiver rotation, both having experience receiving over the middle.
His chemistry with Wentz may come in handy…but now the starting QB is just that, and will be working with the one’s in situational drills, unlike the majority of last year where he was working closely with Turner and Burton. It will be down to Turner to flash just as he did one year ago in order to draw the attention of Mike Groh.
Turner’s done it before, but with the practice squad now out of the equation, the former Louisiana Tech wideout has to go above and beyond if he is to assert himself on the team’s final 53-man roster. With such an abundance of outside talent, it’s not difficult to imagine the Eagles keeping more wideouts around than expected, but will Turner be one of them?
Watford originally worked out with the team as a quarterback last offseason, but was then asked to run some routes as a wide receiver. By the end of preseason, Watford had 5 receptions for 56-yards and a touchdown.
The Eagles liked what they saw from Watford so much, that they kept him around on their practice squad in what was a very crowded WR room. One year later and the Eagles are still just as high on him, having signed Watford to a new contract just a few months ago.
As a senior at Hampton, Watford threw for 21 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, completing 53% of his passes. At 6’2 and 212 pounds, Watford has the tangibles to become a big-body receiver in the right environment. With a 38″ vertical and a 4.56 40-yard dash..the Eagles search for steady hands continues.
His 28-yard touchdown catch against the Colts is what stands out, but Watford is a player that always slips through the cracks. His main competition will likely come in the way of another converted quarterback, but can Watford do enough to push through what is becoming a suffocated wide receiver corps yet again?
It’s all or nothing now…but Watford started OTA’s trending in the right direction. He’s shined in preseason before…but now it’s time to see if he can somehow defy the odds yet again to earn a regular spot on the roster.
Under the radar:
For me, the most exciting part of Eagles wideouts competing at Training Camp has nothing to do with the players themselves. Wide receiver cocach, Mike Groh was the Eagles biggest staff addition this offseason, and his impact can already be seen after some new drills were introduced during rookie minicamp. From Kenny Britt, to Alshon Jeffery, Groh’s track record with wideouts is beyond impressive when it comes to 1,000 yard seasons, so it’s clear his methods work.
We saw Chip Kelly’s musically induced practice, and some new drills introduced last year for Eagles linebackers..but it’s now Groh’s turn to leave his handprint over the NovaCare Complex..and from the intensity of the drills themselves, to how the players respond, to their form, attitude, and overall atmospheric difference, the catalyst of Groh’s presence could be the most underrated aspect of Camp.
Groh was extremely vocal during the spring workout program. Shouting at players, driving them to be better, and getting as involved as humanly possible with each and every drill to get the best out of every player. Not just the top guys, but all of them. It’s that level of intensity that could only be replicated and built upon when the wideouts suit up for the first time next week…and it’s that intensity that could drive the corps to a reputation of danger and instilling fear, as opposed to one of silence.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports