How Zach Pascal’s arrival will benefit DeVonta Smith & Jalen Hurts

NFL: DEC 05 Colts at Texans
HOUSTON, TX – DECEMBER 05: Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Zach Pascal (14) warms up before the football game between the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on December 5, 2021 in Houston, TX. (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire)

The Eagles made a subtle move to kickstart their week, bringing in Zach Pascal to reinforce their WR corps. While many view it as underwhelming, Pascal will play a key role in opening things up for DeVonta Smith, and giving Jalen Hurts more breathing room.

Zach Pascal fits the bill

The big concern with the Eagles signing a big-name wideout had nothing to do with play as such. The Eagles clearly have their #1 guy and bringing in a WR1/2 candidate who would steal some of the spotlight that Smith mustered during his rookie year. Not in terms of displacing him, but demanding a higher target share.

If we look at the Eagles 2021 target share, it’s very apparent how much Hurts favors targeting his old Bama teammate:

DeVonta Smith – 114
Dallas Goedert – 88
Quez Watkins – 69
Jalen Reagor – 60

It’s no coincidence then that since 2019, Zach Pascal has never exceeded 73 targets in a season.

2019 – 72
2020 – 71
2020 – 69

If we assume that Pascal will take over from Watkins in the slot (more on that later) and Watkins moves outside, the theoretical target share would be identical. You could drop Pascal into the offense and there wouldn’t be a sudden change in how the ball needs to be distributed…which is always a factor when bringing in a new player, especially those in a higher tier that have landed a payday for their production in the previous year.

This is very similar to what the Eagles did in 2017. Again, more on that later.

Zoom Zoom

Let’s talk about Quez Watkins. I’ve pitched the concept several times now that the Eagles couldn’t make a decision at wide receiver until they worked out whether they’d want to trial the speed of Watkins outside, or leave him in the slot.

We now have an answer.

Despite being 6’2, Pascal is predominantly a slot receiver and heralded for his blocking ability. Zach Pascal played 62% of his snaps from the slot in 2021. He’s a physical wideout that has a surprisingly crisp route tree and solid understanding of how to leverage himself against defensive backs, especially down in the red zone where the flaunts a variety of techniques to create separation.

Having a physical possession-based receiver over the middle or a ‘big slot’ is an idea that the Eagles have flirted with for a few years now but never followed through on. The addition of Pascal will mean that the Eagles have two big bodies operating over the middle and draw heavy attention from safeties, who will have to come down in a cover-2, and stay further upfield in a cover-1/3 to account for the fact that you’ve got two physical receivers who can either break over the top or come back underneath.

Because of this, it means DeVonta Smith is going to have more one-on-one matchups that will enable him to work into more open space and take advantage of lighter shells.

The impact on Jalen Hurts

This is also going to help Jalen Hurts find stability in going through his reads. Too often, Hurts would be reluctant to come off of his first read, and who could blame him? It’s not like Reagor was getting open consistently, and with smaller wideouts running curls and comebacks, routes inherently based on timing, it’s no benefit to a QB that’s skittish in the pocket and wanting to get out asap.

Having another big body over the middle should entice Hurts to look over the middle of the field more often, meaning that he’ll draw the eyes of the safety and maybe, just maybe, give him the confidence to take a shot over the top to Smith or Watkins.

There’s also the fact that Zach Pascal is an established run blocker. He has an average run-blocking grade of 78.1 through his first four NFL seasons. Given that Hurts does so much of his damage on the ground, it was crucial for the Eagles ot not only find a big body who can block on screens for Watkins and Reagor, but who can move to the second level and help the NFL’s most dominant rushing offense sustain its efficiency.

Run it back

The Eagles had a very similar setup in 2017 when they signed Alshon Jeffery to play the X opposite Torrey Smith with Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor over the middle. The idea was to implement a very ‘Golden State’ approach to football. If one wideout isn’t open, the tight end would be. If the TE is being covered, there should be a wideout with a chance to make a play on the boundary. Finding receivers capable of separating at all three levels is crucial, and while Pascal might not be the cleanest route-runner or most athletic receiver on the planet, he plays with an aggressive demeanor and is able to find breathing room with his light feet and body positioning.

Pascal’s signing will go under the radar when compared to that of Christian Kirk and Allen Robinson, but make no mistake, his impact won’t.

Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire

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