Heading into the last game of the regular season, it’s fair to say it has been an up and down year for rookie receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. The lows have kept him off the field, while the highs have been tempered by inconsistency. His achievements this year, however minor, are overshadowed when stacked up against other receivers of the 2019 draft class — a class which has been nothing short of incredible.
Even when stacked up against receivers taken in previous draft, JJAW’s first year has been somewhat of a disappointment. Known for his catch radius, contested-catch prowess and red zone efficiency, he has just one touchdown to his name this season. With the Eagles’ recent history of drafting underwhelming receivers, the statistics indicate that there a reason for Philly fans to feel nervous about Arcega-Whiteside’s career trajectory. However, as we all know, the numbers never tell the full story. So, is there reason to believe that the young receiver can still become deserving of that second-round pick, or will he be just another failed experiment for the Eagles’ scout staff?
Below is a list of all receivers taken in the second round since 2015, ranked by receiving yards per snap in their rookie year. While this is not the best metric for efficiency, yards per route run is a relatively recent development and is not readily available for every receiver. It also fails to account for a gadget players’ added value. Still, it will do for the purpose of this comparison. The snap count numbers were taken from Lineups and Pro-Football Reference. As you scroll down the list, you’ll notice JJAW is all the way at the bottom, above only Carolina’s Curtis Samuel.
It surely has been a disappointing year for Eagles’ receivers in general and that extends to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. The on-field production matches the pre-season estimates when he was thought to be a third or fourth option off the bench. Thrust into a starting role, he has yet to produce like a starter and the numbers show that he simply hasn’t made enough of his chances. His statistics really don’t show the full story and there are plenty of reasons to bank on Arcega-Whiteside’s upside. Nevertheless, the lack of on-field production has prompted questions about why the Eagles drafted the Stanford alum in the first place.
To understand exactly what JJAW brings to the table, we have to jump back to his time at college. Coming into the 2019 draft, Arcega-Whiteside was a receiver that flew under the radar and wasn’t on many well-known draft board until much later than the second round. However, the scouts that did take notice immediately understood the pro potential the young man had and were quick to label him as a potential draft steal. His physical profile and sound technique were the main reasons why.
In his draft profile of J.J., Gary Davenport of Bleacher Report wrote: “with a tantalizing combination of size, strength and the best high-pointing skills of any receiver in the draft, Arcega-Whiteside could wind up being the best receiver selected outside the first round in 2019. Arcega-Whiteside is also one of the more polished route runners in this year’s class . . . also one of the better blockers. [He] might not have great burst off the line or when making cuts, but he more than compensates for both with consistently excellent technique. There’s rarely any wasted movement or bad angles.”
Other draft profiles encompassed similar excitement. What made Arcega-Whiteside truly special was not simply his contested catch ability — he led college football with 19 contested catches in 2018; double the number of the runner-up — but his ability to leverage defenders into favorable positions. Adding an incredible ability to contort his long frame to a deep bag of get-offs, he had all the tools to translate his production to the NFL. This was not lost on J.J..
My coaches always told me that if you ever want to be good at something, be good at something you can’t teach. Well I’m really good at running past corners downfield. It’s not something that can be coached up.
NFL Draft insider Lance Zurlein may have summarized it best: “he’s smart enough to learn all the tricks to get open as a pro. I hear people underestimate him all the time.”
In preseason, Arcega-Whiteside displayed just that.
In this play, we see a bit of everything JJAW brings to the table as a receiver. With the defender in an outside shade, and a safety over top, he has a lot of work to do to get open in the corner of the endzone. He shows off his savvy get off to force the defenders hips to open to the sideline, then plants his foot firmly in the dirt to get upfield. At the top of the stem he uses a nice little head fake to create some confusion. Then, as soon as he has leverage, he stacks the defender to get on top of him, staying tight to his cover to avoid the safety and uses his strength to keep the corner underneath. The catch is a fantastic display of just how long the man is. He makes a very difficult catch seem routine and doesn’t even break stride.
On the play below, J.J.’s sheer strength is on display. Despite it being preseason, showing reliability on third down and the ability to come down with a challenged catch on a need-to-have play speaks volumes.
It was this electric combination of skills that had Eagles fans salivating over the young receiver before the year had even started. Unfortunately, the early success didn’t translate to regular season stats.
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