In a sense, the journey that brought J.J. Arcega-Whiteside to the NovaCare auditorium this past weekend -- when he was introduced as the Eagles’ 57th overall selection in the second round of the NFL draft -- began near the Stanford practice fields in the middle of the 2018 season.
Arcega-Whiteside, a redshirt junior with a year of eligibility left, was walking with Stanford coach David Shaw.
“We were walking off the field one day," Arcega-Whiteside said, "and he was like, ‘I’m going to miss you.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ He’s like, ‘You know what I mean; you’re ready for the next step. As much as I would love to see you come back, you’re ready, and you’re going to tear it up.’ This was like halfway through the season. After he said that, I was like, if I have his blessing, I have confidence in myself that I’m going to do it already, so why not?”
Arcega-Whiteside entered the draft, where he became “a staff favorite,” top Eagles football exec Howie Roseman said, for his strength and his catch radius, his route-running and red-zone production.
But for fans and observers, Arcega-Whiteside has emerged as the biggest point of contention arising from the Eagles’ draft, a 6-2, 225-pound wideout with a thick enough build to be a linebacker or a safety, but who is not, in fact, a linebacker or a safety.
Coming into the draft, the team had a lot of areas it wanted to address. The trade up from 25th to 22nd overall in the first round to nab starting left tackle-in-waiting Andre Dillard took away fourth- and sixth-round picks, leaving the Eagles with just five total selections, for the second year in a row.
The two picks in the second round became even more crucial. Fifty-third overall, the Eagles took Penn State running back Miles Sanders, a choice no one is second-guessing, a well-known talent from the state who plays the position many fans seem to obsess over.
Four slots later came the other pick. Lots of highly touted safeties sitting there. All sorts of defensive tackles and edge rushers, in a draft that was supposed to be all about the d-line. Also linebackers, whose repeated absence from the upper rounds of the Eagles’ draft often riles fans.
The Eagles took a wide receiver, and it wasn’t Marquise Brown, the speed guy many analysts thought could be their first-round pick. (The Ravens got Brown 25th overall, with the first-round selection the Eagles traded to them to move up.) It was a wide receiver whose specialty is shielding off defenders and bringing down jump balls. Sort of like Alshon Jeffery. Or tight end Zach Ertz, for that matter.
To Eagles player personnel vice president Joe Douglas, that’s a positive.
“I think strength translates in this league,” Douglas said. “You're not going to separate from every corner in this league. There's a ton of talented players and you're going to have to make tough contested catches. You know, those guys, their game travels, man, and when it's cold here and you need a strong guy to go get the ball and make a play, I mean, those are the type of guys we're looking for.”
Despite his 4.49 pro day 40, speed and separation were mentioned as question marks in several draft assessments of Arcega-Whiteside. Some mock drafts pegged him for the third round. Some analysts really liked him; Pro Football Focus proclaimed him a “top three” wideout in this draft and said he deserved more “first-round hype.”
Arcega-Whiteside did not make the first four versions of NFL Network top draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah’s list of the draft’s top 100 prospects, until suddenly appearing at 49th in the final version, a few days before the draft. ESPN’s Todd McShay proclaimed him the Eagles’ best value pick.
A lot of eyes are going to be focused on Arcega-Whiteside this spring and summer. Like defensive end Brandon Graham in 2010, he can’t do anything about the fact that he isn’t a safety (Earl Thomas, in Graham’s case), but Arcega-Whiteside can provide reassurance that he is going to be worth the passing up of talent at those other positions.
Shaw, who was an Eagles assistant on Ray Rhodes’ staff, told the Eagles’ website what he thought fans could expect from a receiver who averaged 16.4 yards per catch over three seasons and scored 14 touchdowns in 2018.
“At the most basic, J.J. does two things. No. 1, he changes field position, and secondly, he scores touchdowns,” Shaw said. “When he gets one-on-one in the end zone, he has an unbelievable catch radius, unbelievable body control. He just goes up, elevates and takes the ball away. It’s just fun to watch.”
Shaw also called Arcega-Whiteside “extremely quarterback friendly,” good at giving a QB a window to throw into.
Arcega-Whiteside was born in Spain to parents who were professional basketball players, but he grew up in Inman, S.C., about 130 miles northwest of St. Matthews, where Jeffery starred at Calhoun County High. Jeffery then played for South Carolina, in Columbia, about 100 miles from Inman.
“It's like, that's a guy that everybody in the state knew. As a kid, it's like, ‘Dang, I want to be him one day. I want to be playing college football, like representing my state, having all the kids look up to me.’ That was me,” Arcega-Whiteside said.
Shaw recalled that when he first started recruiting Arcega-Whiteside, “he was just this young, wiry, lanky basketball player that liked football also.”
» READ MORE: What you need to know about the 2019 draft class
Arcega-Whiteside’s mother, Valorie Whiteside, is the girls’ basketball coach at Dorman High, where her son played. In that atmosphere, he found a distinct upside to football.
“Basketball was always a sport that I grew up playing, grew up learning about, but football was like, ‘Dang, I can just come out here and just be me, and if I make a mistake, my parents aren't going to know I made a mistake,’ ” he said.
Roseman and Douglas talked after the draft about how they recognized they hadn’t addressed some of the things they’d thought they might address, but they seemed proud of having taken Arcega-Whiteside.
“This guy’s a baller,” Roseman said. “He’s got a very good skill set and I think when our fans get to know him they are going to be really proud. He symbolizes Eagle mentality, Eagle football.”