Let’s give the Eagles the benefit of the doubt.
Let’s say the Vikings would have demanded a premium to trade Stefon Diggs within the NFC. Let’s say that the No. 21 overall pick in the draft would not have been enough, despite the fact that 21 is higher than 22, which is where Minnesota will now be picking after trading its talented wideout to the Buffalo Bills.
Let’s say the Houston Texans really were enamored with a 28-year-old running back making $10 million who has averaged 121 carries and 3.6 yards per attempt over the last three seasons. Let’s say they really would have chosen David Johnson and the No. 40 overall pick over No. 21 and change in a trade for DeAndre Hopkins.
Let’s say the Giants weren’t trading Odell Beckham Jr. to a division rival. And that Amari Cooper would not have been worth Andre Dillard. And that a second-round pick would have been far too steep of a price to pay for a slot receiver such as Mohamed Sanu.
All these scenarios are perfectly rational justifications for the Eagles’ reluctance to wade into the trade market at wide receiver over the past few years. And, yet, none of them offers an answer to the question that should be at the top of the list of the ones the front office is asking itself this season. It’s the same unanswered question that all of us will be shouting in some expletive-laden form the first time we watched Carson Wentz reach the top of his drop, and then pat the ball, and then scramble to his right, and attempt to duck under the pads of an oncoming rusher.
To whom does he have to throw it?
One positive thing we can say about the Eagles’ approach to the wide receiver position since Wentz’s arrival is that it is better to be cautious and wrong than aggressive and wrong. Last offseason, they traded for an oft-injured 32-year-old who quickly became injured, and then they drafted a wide receiver at No. 6 in his position who proceeded to finish 16th in yards among his rookie cohorts. It might not have been enough to keep Wentz from being overcome by fits of melancholy on 80% of his dropbacks, but it cost them only a second-round pick, a sixth-round pick, and $20 million or so in cap space over two seasons. That’s a small price to pay for not having had to deal with, say, Antonio Brown.
At some point, though, the Eagles are going to have to get it right at wide receiver, and if the early going is any indication, they will need to rely on the draft to do it. We’re still not at the official start of the free-agent signing period, and already three of the most prolific receivers in the game have moved onto and then off the market.
Diggs, a dynamic downfield threat who also happens to be one of the game’s best route runners, was shipped off to Buffalo after he made it publicly known that he’d rather not spend three more seasons attempting to catch passes from Kirk Cousins. It will be interesting to see whether his perspective changes the first time Josh Allen throws a ball that lands in the freeway, but that’s another story. Hopkins, whose ball skills rank among the best in NFL history, is headed to Arizona. And Cooper, the jewel of the free-agent class, is re-signing with Dallas.
That’s an unprecedented amount of movement at a position that has had its fair share of upheaval over the last few years. Since March 2017, NFL teams have traded away five first-round picks and three second-round picks in deals for veteran receivers (Brandin Cooks, Sammy Watkins, Cooper, Beckham, Sanu, Hopkins, Diggs). Allen Robinson and Robert Woods each caught 90-plus passes for 1,100-plus yards last season, two years after signing free-agent contracts with the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams. John Brown finished in the top 20 in receiving yards after signing with the Bills, this despite playing with Allen. In fact, of the 25 receivers who finished 2019 with at least 1,000 yards receiving, all but five were acquired by their current team within the five offseasons that have passed since Chip Kelly left the Eagles.
But now that the early dust has settled, this year’s free-agent market is short on available options. Emmanuel Sanders would clearly be an upgrade, but he will also be 33 years old. Will Robby Anderson be this year’s version of Woods, who has blossomed into a legitimate starting receiver since escaping the dregs of Buffalo? At 26, Anderson at least has some upside, and plenty of straight-line speed to go with it. Or maybe that guy is Breshad Perriman. A 26-year-old former first-round pick, he has youth and pedigree, and it’s tough to ignore the way he finished the season: 25 catches, 506 yards, five touchdowns, and a 20.2-yards-per-catch average over the Buccaneers’ last five games. Beyond that group, Nelson Agholor might be the next best option.
It is going to come down to execution on draft day, and that’s a harrowing thought given the Eagles’ recent experiments at improving Wentz’s outside weapons. Since 2014, the capital that they’ve spent on wide receiver includes a first-rounder (Agholor), two second-rounders (Jordan Matthews and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside), two third-rounders (Josh Huff and Golden Tate), a fourth (Mack Hollins) and a fifth (Shelton Gibson). None of these picks was higher than 25th overall, but five fell within the top 100. That’s a six-year investment window in which the aggregate return is a total of one player who is still under contract.
The experts regard this year’s crop of matriculates as one of the more talented groups in recent years, with upwards of nine receivers warranting first-round grades. Yet we’ve seen this thought experiment play out before. Not since DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin has it worked out as intended. While there might be a player who can give Wentz the outside threat that he needs, the bigger unknowns are whether the Eagles can identify him and whether they will find themselves in a spot where they can draft him.
Neither of those seems likely, given past experience. With the No. 21 overall pick, they are sitting in a position that has historically been a dead zone of talent. Last year, two receivers were drafted with the final 13 picks of the first round. Marquise Brown and N’Keal Harry finished their rookie seasons having combined for 689 yards on 58 receptions.
Over the last 10 drafts, 16 receivers have gone in that range. The median output their rookie seasons: 39 catches, 484 yards. Of the 34 receivers who have been drafted with a top-100 pick over the last three years, 24 finished their rookie season with fewer than 600 yards. More than half of the group would not have led Eagles receivers in yards last season.
We like to think that the offseason is the time when teams make themselves contenders, but it’s really offseasons in the plural that manufacture champions. Time will tell whether the Eagles would have been wise to be more aggressive in this year’s veteran labor market. It will tell whether Arcega-Whiteside can make the second-year leap that previous rookies have. It will tell whether they can parlay one of their four top-100 picks into a pass-catcher who can actually make an impact.