EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When your third tight end has caught the most yards in two of your last three games, you might have a wide receiver problem.
The Eagles fell meekly to the New York Giants, 27-17, Sunday for a variety of reasons. Doug Pederson’s team came out flat off the bye week. The coach’s offensive play calling was uninspiring. Jim Schwartz’s defense made Daniel Jones look like 1980s-era John Elway. And quarterback Carson Wentz failed to deliver in key spots.
But the Eagles' receivers belong on the list, as well, because if there was ever a game to feature the group, it was this. The Giants have one of the lesser secondaries in the NFL and have struggled to find complementary cornerbacks to James Bradberry all season. And yet, Wentz and his receivers couldn’t exploit the deficiency.
Greg Ward, Jalen Reagor, Travis Fulgham and Alshon Jeffery caught just a combined 10 of 21 targets for 94 yards. Tight end Richard Rodgers, meanwhile, had four grabs for 60 yards. The longest completion for a receiver was just 16 yards. And Wentz took just two deep shots and in both circumstances his receiver was covered.
Wentz said the Giants played a deep zone which forced the Eagles to work underneath. Safety Jabrill Peppers confirmed the basic coverage, but he also said that the Giants did more disguising pre-snap, which may have confounded the Eagles quarterback more than in their first meeting three weeks ago.
But there were also few noticeable moments when Wentz missed open receivers downfield. Pederson’s game plan almost seemed resigned to having to sustain long drives to score. But can that be a recipe for success with Wentz as inaccurate as he’s even been?
To no surprise, the Eagles finally activated Jeffery Sunday. While that doesn’t forgive the inexcusable eight weeks they wasted with the receiver on the 53-man roster, it seemed as if the team would finally get something from its $16 million receiver.
But Jeffery played sparingly and was targeted only once — an early Wentz pass that sailed over his outstretched hands. Was it worth not dressing youngsters JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Quez Watkins? Perhaps. It’s not like either has earned a role.
The decision, though, all but seals what has been apparent about Arcega-Whiteside: The Eagles don’t believe the second-year receiver is worth developing. Twenty-four games is fairly quick to pull the cane on a second-round draft pick, but Arcega-Whiteside has just 12 catches over that span. He can’t even be trusted to play on special teams.
Watkins is only a sixth-round rookie and has played little. But John Hightower has been featured since Week 1, especially in the deep passing game, and the fifth-round rookie spent most of Sunday watching from the sidelines.
Hightower has struggled. Route running, tracking passes, and actually catching haven’t come easy. But Pederson and Wentz spent part of last week lauding the receiver and emphasized the importance of keeping him involved. He has gotten open deep.
“Playing time … that’s not really a question for me,” Wentz said when asked if Hightower’s lack of playing time has anything to do with the Giants' scheme. “But that’s their style of defense … they’re going to make you play underneath. You could say that was an element to it, but there’s also an element to getting a guy like Alshon back.”
The Eagles' personnel decisions at the position have been schizophrenic since the offseason, and the usage of veterans like DeSean Jackson and Jeffery vs. the youngsters has been an extension of that dichotomy.
The team has an obligation to play for the NFC East crown. The 3-5-1 Eagles still lead the darn thing. But general manager Howie Roseman and Pederson seem delusional about their chances beyond a virtual meaningless division title. Is there any valid reason for playing Jeffery other than to save face for a poor contract?
Roseman can be faulted for not acquiring elite receivers like DeAndre Hopkins or Stefon Diggs who were available to trade, or for not signing a free agent like Robby Anderson. But his original errors were the long-term extension and 2020 guarantee he gave Jeffery, and the deal he gave the aging Jackson.
Despite those ill-fated decisions, the Eagles do have some potential at the position. Reagor, who caught four passes for 47 yards Sunday, hasn’t exactly played as well as some of the other rookie receivers drafted in the first two rounds, but he’s been hurt, and when he has played, he has shown obvious ability.
He couldn’t get open against Bradberry on a key fourth-and-10 late Sunday. But Wentz’s decision to throw to Reagor when he wasn’t open seemed like the greater sin.
“Thought we had an opportunity there to make a play,” Pederson said. “It is part of the progression, but it’s also based on the decision on the quarterback.”
Fulgham has been the brightest surprise in a season with more disappointments. Picked up off waivers and only given a shot early in the season because of injuries, he’s shown legitimate staying power. But he was a ghost against the Giants and caught only 1 of 5 passes for eight yards.
Wentz didn’t help matters. He threw behind Fulgham on the third down before the late fourth down try, but the receiver still got his hands on the ball and couldn’t pull it in. There’s been a lot of talk about the quarterback developing chemistry with his young receivers, but how much longer can that be an excuse?
“I thought it played OK, played good,” Pederson said of Wentz. "Obviously, there were some throws we’d like to have back from the standpoint of accuracy. He managed the game and the run game real well. … Hung tough. Did what he’s capable of doing.
“We just have to continue to work with him. We got to continue to work with our young skill guys to get on the same page because everything matters when you get in the games. It’s all magnified.”
Wentz, of course, never had a great rhythm with Jeffery — both on the field and off. Dressing the receiver wasn’t a significant factor in the loss, but it does speak to an underlying decay in the direction of the franchise.
“I thought there were some good things that he did,” Pederson said of Jeffery. “It was exciting to get him back in the game and back on the field, and something we’ll continue to build with him as we go.”