The first of 10 parts previewing the Eagles’ 90-man roster as the team continues to conduct virtual offseason workouts.
We start with the wideouts.
Who’s back: While the Eagles have brought in a number of new faces (more on that later), most of the receivers from last year’s team are still on the roster. That may come as a surprise considering the lack of production from the group, but extenuating circumstances outside of talent have at least had something to do with return of Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. Of the three, Jeffery is the least likely to be here when the season begins — whenever that may be. If the opener is Sept. 13, as scheduled, he may still be employed by the Eagles, but it’s unlikely he’ll be on the 53-man roster.
Jeffery suffered a season-ending Lisfranc foot injury on Dec. 9. While the Eagles have been reluctant to give a timetable on his return, sources close to the receiver said he was as far out as nine months from a full recovery from surgery, which theoretically could have him back in uniform by Week 1. The Eagles would love to trade Jeffery. They tried as far back as last October before anonymous quotes criticizing Carson Wentz, the offense and the front office were attributed to him. But he is virtually untradeable considering his contract, age, relative decline, and mostly, his injury. The Eagles could release him at any time and spread out the dead money against the salary cap (approximately $26 million) into next year, but there really isn’t an impetus right now if they hope to accrue something in return for the 30-year old.
Maybe they envision working Jeffery back into the fold once healthy. He wasn’t happy last season when he found out about the possible trade, and whether that had anything to do with his alleged comments to ESPN, I still can’t imagine him playing in midnight green again. But a lot could depend on how Jackson returns from November core muscle surgery, how Arcega-Whiteside develops in Year 2, and how the new pieces fit. The Eagles simply aren’t in a position to be dumping (former) Pro Bowl receivers, however distant they are from their best seasons, and from the starting quarterback.
Jackson’s base salary is an affordable $6.2 million, but the Eagles may have been inclined to move on had $4.8 million not been guaranteed. He missed most of last season and hasn’t played 16 games in a season since 2013. He’s been sidelined for 30 games to injury in the last six seasons and at age 33 can’t be relied on as an every-Sunday starter. I wouldn’t count Jackson out, though. He looked as explosive as ever, pre-injury, in last season’s opener. And even if he’s lost a half step, and plays only 10-12 games, I bet the Eagles would take that. Of course, if the other receivers don’t step up, Jackson’s health and production become significantly more important to offensive success. He has regularly posted videos on his rehab and looks nimble, but we’re still a long way from actual games and Jackson really pushing those aging muscles.
Arcega-Whiteside is in the middle of his ever-important first full NFL offseason. Aside from virtual meetings and strength training the last month, he’s had to go it alone. Too much can be made of spring workouts, but Arcega-Whiteside clearly needed the on-field repetitions based upon his rookie season. I haven’t written him off. There were occasional glimmers and he wouldn’t be first NFL receiver to struggle as a rookie before figuring it out in Year 2. If the light bulb were to go on, Arcega-Whiteside would help negate the loss of Jeffery and place less pressure on Jackson and the new faces to perform. But I would be concerned that Arcega-Whiteside was unable to consistently do the one thing — winning jump balls — the Eagles touted since he was drafted in the second round.
Greg Ward endured 16 roster moves with the Eagles before becoming their most effective receiver late last season. His picture should be posted alongside the word resilient in the dictionary. His numbers weren’t eye-popping over the final seven games, including the playoffs, but he was reliable in the slot, something that couldn’t be said of his predecessor. Ward caught 31 of 44 targets for 278 yards and a touchdown over that span. The Eagles’ reluctance to promote Ward over Mack Hollins for weeks was a gross oversight on the part of the front office. The energy of Ward and other former practice squad players helped buoyed Wentz and the offense and lead the Eagles into the playoffs. I’m not sure what his ceiling is, but he has a chance to claim the slot role if the rookies (likely) need time to develop.
Deontay Burnett, Robert Davis and Shelton Gibson were added to the roster down the stretch as injuries at receiver piled up. Burnett caught a 41-yard pass in the season finale against the New York Giants. Davis has some size (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) that could be developed. And Gibson, who returned before the playoffs out of roster desperation, was nearly a hero when he drew a pass interference penalty on the Eagles’ (all-for-naught) final drive. But I can’t imagine any of the three have a shot at making the final roster, and that includes Marcus Green, who spent most of last season on the practice squad.
Who’s gone: Given the opportunity again to decline Nelson Agholor’s fifth-year option, the Eagles likely would have parted with their former first-round draft pick last March. He simply failed to deliver when Jackson and Jeffery were beset by injury and looked more like the 2015-16 Agholor than the 2017-18 one. Agholor was fine in the slot as a third receiver, but he struggled on the outside, particularly tracking downfield throws. He was hampered by a knee injury which eventually ended his season, but it became clear as the season progressed that 2019 would be his last year in Philly.
Agholor signed a one-year, $1.0475 million contract with the Raiders in March. There were reports that he turned down more lucrative offers, but taking a show-me deal could benefit the 27-year-old if he returns to his 2017 form. A change of scenery could benefit Agholor, who too often read his own press clippings or reacted to social media.
The Eagles released Marken Michel and River Cracraft in late April after the draft.
Who’s new: The Eagles, like many teams, had the chance to trade for DeAndre Hopkins or Stefon Diggs in March. I can understand why the Eagles balked at the Vikings’ price tag for the latter. The Bills surrendered four draft picks (2020 first-rounder (No. 22 overall), a 2020 fifth-rounder, a 2020 sixth-rounder and a 2021 fourth-rounder) for Diggs and a 2020 seventh-rounder. Diggs is a proven commodity, a field stretcher entering the prime of his career. But this year’s crop of receiver prospects was considered deep and the Eagles had to factor in expense — they’ll own the rights to first-round pick Jalen Reagor for five years on his rookie contract — into acquiring a veteran. The same could be said of their reluctance to trade for Hopkins, whose contract demands led to the Texans dealing him and a 2020 fourth-rounder to the Cardinals for running back David Johnson, a 2020 second-rounder and a 2021 fourth-rounder. I would have done the Hopkins deal if Houston wanted tight end Dallas Goedert (or even Zach Ertz). He’s an elite receiver who will be only 28 on opening day. But it’s possible that Houston didn’t like the Eagles’ best offer. Maybe. I would have found a way to make it better. You basically solve the receiver problem with one push of the button.
Reagor may be the solution, but there is an obvious gamble. I don’t think we need to rehash how the first round of the draft unfolded. The key question to me will be whether general manager Howie Roseman pushed the Eagles’ need for speed in drafting Reagor with the No. 21 overall pick ahead of Justin Jefferson (who went next to the Vikings). I don’t yet know the answer to that question. He said that Reagor would have gone before the Eagles had another chance to pick again had they traded out. I’ve polled other teams who had Reagor rated anywhere from a second-to-fourth-round pick, but they could have been wrong about his value. He has an intriguing mix of speed and athleticism. He seems like he has his head screwed on straight. But the Eagles need him to deliver, the sooner the better. If Reagor can contribute here and there on a weekly basis and flash enough big-play potential, it should be enough in Year 1.
The Eagles took a couple of third-day rolls of the dice on John Hightower and Quez Watkins, two more receivers with velocity. I’ve seen more praise for the former selection than the latter, but they were available in the fifth and sixth rounds for a reason. They’re both on the slender side. Some evaluator compared Watkins to former Eagles receiver Todd Pinkston, which is the kiss of death around these parts. But if Watkins were to have anywhere near that career, Roseman would be ecstatic. Hightower seems to have greater upside. He was productive at Boise State and has a little more length — 6-2 to 6-0 — than Watkins. I think it’s unlikely either will contribute much in his first season, especially early on. The lack of spring workouts won’t help their assimilation. And Jackson, Arcega-Whiteside and Reagor will likely get first dibs on playing time. But it’s not as if the latter two have done anything yet. If either Hightower or Watkins slipped because of the depth of the position in the draft, the Eagles may have gotten a steal.
The Eagles also picked up Marquise Goodwin on the third day of the draft. They sent a sixth-rounder to the 49ers for the 29-year-old veteran. Goodwin hasn’t been able to stay healthy in recent seasons, which makes him a perfect for the Eagles. All kidding aside, I see little wrong with the compensation for a guy who has track and field speed and had 56 catches for 962 yards three seasons ago. He’s insurance in case Jackson stumbles or Reagor is slow out of the gates, but he has to first prove he can stay healthy.
Manasseh Bailey and Khalil Tate were signed as undrafted rookies. Tate, a former quarterback at Arizona, is the more intriguing prospect. The Eagles have done well with converting college quarterbacks to ball catchers (see: Trey Burton, Ward). It also doesn’t hurt to have a multifaceted athlete who can perform other roles on your practice squad.