Last week, it was the right corner of the end zone; Wednesday, the left. Both times, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside seemed to be covered as he went up for the pass, but the Eagles rookie receiver twisted his body and kept elevating, while shielding the ball from the cornerback. Both times, he made the catch and came down barely inbounds for the practice-field touchdown.
That is the skill, more than any other, that convinced the Eagles to select Arcega-Whiteside with the 57th overall pick in the second round of the 2019 NFL draft. He has run a 4.49 40, but running in a straight line isn’t what Arcega-Whiteside does best.
Watching Wednesday was an undrafted rookie linebacker, Joey Alfieri, who saw this sort of thing a lot as Arcega-Whiteside’s teammate at Stanford.
“He’s just a unique player. I think he’s got unique size and speed,” Alfieri said after the next-to-last day of Eagles OTAs at the NovaCare Complex. “I think there were certain times during the year when we were the exact same weight, where I’m playing linebacker and he’s playing receiver … . At Stanford, we’ve had weigh-ins where we’d both be 229 or something. He’s a big body.”
The Eagles list Arcega-Whiteside at 6-2, 225, and Alfieri at 6-3, 239, but as they used to say in the fine print on cereal boxes, some settling of contents might have occurred. The linebacker and the wide receiver still have nearly identical builds.
“He’s a unique guy with a unique background that makes him have a great skill set for this game,” Alfieri said.
About that background -- just in case you missed all the draft coverage -- Arcega-Whiteside was born in Spain to a couple of professional basketball players. Joaquin Arcega and Valorie Whiteside eventually retired from European hoops and settled in Whiteside’s native South Carolina, where she became the women’s basketball coach at Dorman High, near Spartanburg.
Their son gravitated toward football, but early on he was steeped in hardwood culture.
“Just go up and get the ball ... . Get the rebound,” he said, when asked Wednesday about the mechanics of his end-zone work. “At the end of the day, when it’s the red zone, just gotta go get it. There’s no other way to put it.”
Arcega-Whiteside got a precious opportunity to work with the first team on Wednesday, with DeSean Jackson and Nelson Agholor sitting out the optional session. Alshon Jeffery has not been at the OTAs.
“It definitely took some time” to build timing with quarterback Carson Wentz, Arcega-Whiteside said. “We get some fades, some back shoulders, all that after practice every day. Those things don’t happen immediately, they happen over time. We definitely try to put the work in to perfect it.
“Gaining his trust is going to be huge. Obviously, I have to earn that trust. Every time we run a route together, he pulls me to the side and talks about it with me.
“I ran a lot of post-up routes in college. We don’t have any of that in the playbook. I have to change up a little bit of what I do, adjust to the way Carson throws the ball. He’s going to put it on the money every time ... . There’s adjusting to the speed of the ball, the timing – everything is just a little bit different.”
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said this week that he can see the progress.
“This kid has deceiving speed, long speed, No. 1. He's big. He's physical at the top,” Pederson said. “You can see some of his separation, when there's contact at the top of routes, where he can separate. Got really good first-step quickness at the line to release, and he's a big -- just a big body. We've seen him in the red zone a little bit and being able to, you know, [work] some back-shoulder throws and some of the things you've seen on tape in college. He's been impressive that way.
“But I would say that he's still learning, learning how to run routes, learning how our quarterbacks throw and the timing of things. But he's had a really good spring.”
Arcega-Whiteside, something of a technician, seems to hate being the new guy who hasn’t mastered all the details.
Alfieri recalled when Arcega-Whiteside showed up at Stanford.
“Day 1, he was getting in extra work, running routes … . He’s a guy that just fully immerses himself in the game and loves the process and just getting better,” Alfieri said.
Arcega-Whiteside said that through three weeks of OTAs, he has gone from a guy who lines up thinking, “I can’t mess up, I can’t mess up,” to someone who is confident that he understands the play and the route.
“Instead of thinking, ‘Oh, what do I have?’ it’s, ‘How do I win’ " against the coverage? he said. “We ran the two-minute drill, had a couple of unscripted periods, and I wasn’t nervous at all.”
It will be interesting to see what sort of role Arcega-Whiteside carves out in an offense that seems to feature the deepest array of weapons Wentz has commanded since his 2016 arrival. The Eagles went from second in red-zone efficiency during the Super Bowl season to 17th last year. But the rookie’s size and skill set mirror Jeffery, who is listed at 6-3, 218.
We don’t know yet how Jeffery feels about the team using a high draft pick on a very similar receiver. This year, Jeffery’s dead money figure ($21,675,000) is much bigger than the $14,725,000 the team could save by releasing him, but that stops being the case in 2020, when those numbers flip -- $15,975,000 if Jeffery is on the roster, $6,950,000 in dead money if he is released.
Arcega-Whiteside expects to meet Jeffery next week, when three days of mandatory minicamp wrap up the Eagles’ spring work.
“I’m looking forward to it. He’s from South Carolina, I grew up watching him. He’s been very dominant in the league,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “Being able to look at him, up close and personal, on the field, and watch how he does things, emulate those things, is going to be great for me, as a player and a person.