Nothing is written. Anyone who has followed the Eagles’ travails with their top three receivers this season understands the impermanence of expectations.
For months after the Eagles added DeSean Jackson to a receiver mix that already included Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor, stories were penned touting the collective talent of the group. Pro Football Focus, for instance, ranked the receivers No. 1 in the NFL before a preseason snap had even been taken.
And while the Eagles did their best to downplay the hype, they, too, felt confident about their prospects at the position. They had, in the speedy Jackson, the physical Jeffery, and the elusive Agholor, a complement of receivers who would seemingly test the most versatile of defensive secondaries.
But plans that go awry aren’t often the best-laid. And the Eagles have paid the price.
Jackson, aging and injury prone, played essentially one game before a season-ending abdomen injury. Jeffery, slowing and lacking chemistry with quarterback Carson Wentz, regressed before a season-ending foot injury. And Agholor, mistake-prone and ill-fitted for a larger role, struggled and has battled a knee injury that could sideline him again Sunday against the Redskins.
All three, it could be argued, have had the worst seasons of their NFL careers either because of injury, performance, or both. The underachieving 6-7 Eagles are, by circumstance, very much in the playoff picture. In fact, they are tied atop the NFC East with the Cowboys.
But if told before the season that Dallas would have a losing record entering Week 15, many would have predicted a runaway division title, likely with the three-headed receiving monster of Jackson, Jeffery, and Agholor healthy and leading the way.
“That’s how it was written, and it would have been beautiful if that’s the way it played out,” Agholor said Wednesday. “Things happen in this league. And in my case, I’m just trying to get healthy so I can at least help these guys finish up strong.”
Wentz, in spite of the injuries, somehow managed to guide the Eagles to a dramatic overtime win past the New York Giants on Monday. He did so with the likes of rookie J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and former practice squad player Greg Ward at receiver and will have to again the rest of the way.
Anything is possible. But if the Eagles are to fall short, and even if they are to qualify for the postseason and go one-and-done, the failures of the 2019 season will likely be told – and written – with significance placed upon the shoulders of the disappointing starting receivers.
The front office, coaching staff, and Wentz invested various resources into appeasing the trio. Jackson came via a trade with the Buccaneers and was promptly signed to a three-year, $27 million contract. The Eagles picked up the fifth-year option on Agholor’s contract for $9.387 million. And they guaranteed Jeffery’s $9.91 million salary for 2020.
Coach Doug Pederson and his assistants tweaked an offense to account for Jackson’s defense-stretching ability. And Wentz spent countless hours working with the receivers on on-field chemistry, and countless hours off the field strengthening their relationships.
But they fell far short of expectations, certainly because of injury but for other reasons not as clear.
“Having … those three guys miss time now, you sit back and go, ‘Well, not going to make any excuses for it, but gosh, only if, only if,’ ” Pederson said Friday. “I don’t let my mind go down necessarily that path. I’m focused on the guys that are healthy. I’m focused on the guys that are out there and getting them better because we still have three games, three weeks, and a lot ahead of us.”
But it’s only normal to peek ahead to next offseason. While Agholor will likely leave via free agency, decisions on the 33-year-old Jackson and the soon-to-be-30-year-old Jeffery, especially considering their injuries, aren’t as cut and dried. The only certainty is that Arcega-Whiteside, a second-round draft pick, will return.
His future, however, is about as open-ended as the Eagles’ plans for receiver next year. General manager Howie Roseman’s dealings last offseason suggested otherwise. In retrospect, there were obvious misevaluations.
Written in the wind
Jeffery missed the first three games of last season following shoulder surgery, but he returned to catch 76 passes for 988 yards and six touchdowns in 15 games, including the postseason. Despite dropping a crucial pass late in the divisional playoff, he finished the year on an upswing.
But Nick Foles’ insertion after Wentz’s season-ending back injury figured into his increased production. Jeffery’s numbers with Foles as opposed to with Wentz over two seasons were disparate. He caught a higher ratio and higher average per target on passes overall (15.1 and 4.9) and beyond 20 yards (24.9 and 9.5) with the former compared with the latter.
The Eagles, according to their own web site, announced that they had guaranteed Jeffery’s salary for next year just before this season. They said the restructuring gave the team cap space in return, but there appeared to be no reason for it other than to placate the receiver.
Jackson’s arrival, meanwhile, would give Wentz the consistent big-play threat he has lacked and create space for the other receivers and tight ends underneath. Despite his age, Jackson led the NFL with an 18.9 yards-per-catch average in 2018. But he had missed 15 games to injury in his last five seasons.
Agholor had a difficult first two seasons in the NFL but blossomed two years ago, when moved into the slot. He was solid last year, but when asked to play more on the outside after the acquisition of Golden Tate, he wasn’t as involved.
The Eagles dangled Agholor on the market before they had to make a decision about his option. But the offers weren’t attractive, and the Eagles decided to bring him back despite his increasing salary.
Jackson’s abdomen injury in Week 2 forced Agholor into a more prominent role. He had his best game of the season, catching eight passes for 107 yards and a touchdown against the Falcons, but he dropped a potential game-winning score and would follow that gaffe with several others over the next two months as he lined up more on the outside.
He said he suffered a knee injury against the Vikings in early October, but he did not miss time until the Seahawks game last month. He returned the following week but was inactive against the Giants. He is listed as questionable for the Redskins.
Agholor, who said that his knee was in a “stalemate” Wednesday, was asked if his pending free agency would factor into his willingness to play through injury the rest of the season.
“That’s a conversation that people can have,” Agholor said. “The most important thing right now is to try and get healthy.”
Jackson, no matter how hard he tried, couldn’t get healthy enough to return from the abdomen injury he suffered early in the Falcons game. He was inactive the next six weeks and tried to go against the Bears in Week 9, but played only four snaps before aggravating his injury. He was placed on injured reserve and had surgery in the days that followed.
Jeffery injured his calf early against Atlanta, as well, and missed the next game and two more with an ankle injury. When he did play, he either struggled to get separation downfield or he had trouble hooking up with Wentz.
“He had injuries here and there throughout the year and that definitely lingered and hampered him,” Wentz said Thursday. “But when he was healthy, he was making plays and he was helping us out in a big way and that’s a tough loss for us.”
Jeffery had his best day against the Dolphins two weeks ago, pulling in nine catches for 137 yards and a touchdown. It was a vintage performance, albeit against a suspect defense. A week later, after two errant targets, Jeffery suffered a Lisfranc foot injury.
Pederson said Friday that Jeffery would undergo surgery. He will need approximately nine months of recovery, an NFL source said, which would place a return around the start of the 2020 season.
All told, the three have combined for 91 catches for 1,012 yards and nine touchdowns in 24 total games. If Agholor wasn’t to play another game, it would be the lowest number of receptions and receiving yards from the Eagles’ top three receivers on the depth chart since 1990 (receptions) and 1976 (yards).
Written in the stars
The offseason began with promise. Wentz had gone out of his way to foster relationships with the receivers, among others in the locker room. There had been anonymous quotes in stories from last year and early this year criticizing the quarterback for favoring tight end Zach Ertz and alienating some on the team with his uncompromising ways.
Wentz didn’t necessarily agree with those characterizations, but he didn’t dispute them either. He spent additional time with teammates by hosting get-togethers at his South Jersey home, he treated the top three receivers to a celebratory dinner after he signed his contract extension, and he flew offensive skill position players to his new home in Houston for workouts and entertaining.
Jeffery had a ticket purchased for him, but he didn’t show in Houston, according to sources familiar with the trip. It’s unclear why he didn’t attend. Jeffery hasn’t spoken with reporters since after the Bears game on Nov. 3.
Several weeks earlier, there was another round of anonymous quotes to ESPN that again questioned Wentz and the offense, comments that were later attributed to Jeffery by a WIP-FM reporter who also happens to be the Eagles’ sideline reporter.
Jeffery had denied he had made the comments – in a roundabout way – but the report only added fuel to the narrative that the receiver had a problem with Wentz.
“I have a great relationship with Alshon,” Wentz said Thursday. “He’s been an awesome teammate ever since he got here. When he first signed here, we went to dinner, we got to know each other, we both had high expectations for each other.
“It’s been awesome getting to know him as a guy and as a teammate and seeing the plays he’s been able to make over the years and this year as well. I love that guy and obviously the injury is very unfortunate.”
The injuries to Jeffery, Jackson, and Agholor were bad enough, but the Eagles’ reserves failed to offset the losses. Mack Hollins went one eight-game stretch without a single catch even though he played 204 snaps over that span. And he was initially on the field because Arcega-Whiteside wasn’t yet up to speed on all the receiver positions.
But Arcega-Whiteside has shown glimpses, however brief, of promise, and Ward has flashed on a few occasions. Robert Davis, who had spent a few seasons on and off the Redskins roster, was signed off the Eagles practice squad Thursday to take Jeffery’s spot.
“It’s been obviously tough,” Ertz said of the receiver turnover. “You got a lot of confidence in those three [starters] at the beginning of the year. But at the same time these young guys are bringing a lot of juice each and every day to practice.”
Wentz has ostensibly taken the young receivers under his wing. In the open locker room period alone, he has been spotted having long conversations with Arcega-Whiteside and Ward this week. On Friday, Davis walked by the quarterback’s stall and they exchanged cell numbers.
“It just leads to personal growth when you extend yourself,” Ertz said of Wentz. “It may not pay dividends right now, but it could pay dividends five, 10 years down the road. … It doesn’t matter if it’s just those guys, he’s going to see the fruits of the labor.”
The jury is still out on how the youngsters will perform. It’s unlikely that the Eagles will entrust their future strictly to any one of them. Jeffery is guaranteed $11.5 million and Jackson $6.8 million next season. Their contracts and injuries make trades unlikely, as would the cap hit with releases, especially for the former.
But upgrading the receiver position will be one of Roseman’s offseason priorities, and no matter the obstacles to parting with Jeffery or Jackson or both, nothing is written.