The 2020 season was one to forget when it came to the Philadelphia Eagles. From beginning to end, the year was filled with bumps and bruises. As the weeks wore on, desperation filled in and pressure piled onto a team that was falling apart at the seams. Among those players facing unrealistic expectations was rookie receiver John Hightower.
John Hightower & the curse of expectation
When discussing the rookie year of John Hightower, it’s important to take several things into account. The first is that he was a fifth-round pick forced into the rotation early due to a troubling amount of injuries at the position.
The second is that because he started the season so low on the depth chart, he never really had an opportunity to build a bond with his quarterback like the starters did, especially without a preseason or regular training camp experience. This shouldn’t be taken as an excuse as much as it should be considered a factor in what we saw in 2020.
With that said, Hightower really didn’t play that badly. He ended 2020 with 167 yards on 10 receptions and actually led the NFL in ‘Average depth of target’ (22 yards), showing that the Eagles clearly view him as a burner. What many will look back on, however, are the drops.
Hightower dropped 3 passes in 2021 and while that number doesn’t sound like a lot, the drops themselves were damaging. A 3rd & 12 pass bobbled out of his hands against the Ravens, a touchdown pass slipped through his fingers against the Steelers, and he also had a huge deep miss against Washington. However, it’s when you look at what Hightower did well that you begin to see something eerily familiar.
When it came to running routes, John Hightower may well have been the crispest on the team. Gaining separation with an explosive stutter-step was easy and he could often be seen streaking down the sideline with large throwing window around him as a result of his elusiveness. The problem is that he simply wasn’t being targeted. Does this remind you of anyone?
If Nelson Agholor’s rookie campaign sprang to mind then you’ve earned one PSN gold star. In fact, the two are scarily similar. Hightower is an inch taller and one pound heavier than Agholor, who was drafted in the first round back in 2015. Despite doing most of his damage from the slot in college, he was sent straight outside, where he put Darelle Revis on skates as well as several other notable corners. Like Hightower though, he wasn’t targeted, and when he was, things often took a turn for the worst.
Agholor caught 23 of 44 passes in his rookie year for 283 yards and a touchdown. He also had 4 drops to his name. The difference here is that Agholor played in 58% of offensive snaps and rarely saw the ball. Hightower showed more in fewer opportunities (31% of snaps) and was drafted four rounds later.
Agholor was placed under a microscope almost immediately with each drop becoming more excruciating than the last, but he did all the little things right. When he was finally able to get out of his own way and improve his ball-tracking, we saw a player who rose up to the occasion and would later play a key role during the Eagles’ iconic Super Bowl run.
What does the future hold for John Hightower?
The pressure applied to both players during their rookie years also reached similar heights. Fans were left in agony with each drop as the offense desperately tried to survive. But as we all know, Agholor endured one more bumpy season and was embraced by a new Head Coach who knew how to better utilize his skillset after connecting with him emotionally. Nick Sirianni now enters the fold aiming to fill the void left by Doug Pederson and the Eagles clearly still need help at wide receiver. While a leap to Agholor’s transition inside and 2017 production is a stretch, hoping for general improvement is not.
If the City of Brotherly Love waited five years to exhaust every last Nelson Agholor snap, then cutting Hightower some slack should come easy. He was drafted much later and endured a very similar rookie season while facing a near-identical scenario going into year two. With Aaron Moorehead being the only offensive coach not named Jeff Stoutland to be retained by the team, who’s to say that he can’t take the next step in his development this offseason?
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