Wide receivers are often the stars of offseason workouts. The absence of pads allows for them to run and make catches unimpeded in what is essentially a passing camp, while defenders and linemen are bound by rules limiting contact.
It would be foolish to predict future success or failure off of an incomplete picture, but receivers have historically been the easiest to assess during spring practices, rookies in particular. If you don’t have the speed or hands to compete in the easiest of settings, you’re probably ill-equipped to excel when football is at its toughest.
The Eagles likely won’t have the opportunity to gauge this year’s class of receivers on the field until at least late July, with workouts all but canceled because of the coronavirus. They’re in the same boat as most NFL teams.
But overall uncertainty and the need for production from their rookies, particularly first-round pick Jalen Reagor, could make the lack of “grass time,” as coach Doug Pederson labeled it, a hindrance to the Eagles’ young receivers being ready when (if) the season begins.
Of the Eagles’ nine returning receivers, only two caught passes in the final two games of the season – Greg Ward and Deontay Burnett. Injuries and poor play besieged a unit that many identified as the most in need of a makeover this offseason.
General manager Howie Roseman obliged by drafting three receivers, trading for one, and signing two undrafted rookies. But the position remains as much a question mark as it was in January because, aside from former 49ers receiver Marquise Goodwin, the additions are new to the NFL.
And now it could be weeks before the Eagles have any idea if Reagor, or fifth-round pick John Hightower, or sixth-rounder Quez Watkins -- or even undrafted rookies Manasseh Bailey and Khalil Tate -- have any chance of contributing by September.
“We do need the grass time to see what these guys can do,” Pederson said Tuesday during a teleconference call, “and see what they have taken away from the offseason from a mental standpoint.”
The Eagles are also unable to see how DeSean Jackson’s recovery from November core muscle surgery translates to the practice field, or if the oft-injured Goodwin can still burn with the fastest of receivers.
Alshon Jeffery is still months from returning following foot surgery, but while he and the 33-year-old Jackson can still rehab at the NovaCare Complex during the league-wide team facility shutdown, his future with the Eagles remains indeterminate.
If they had gotten more out of J.J. Arcega-Whiteside -- Jeffery’s presumptive successor -- during his rookie season, the Eagles might have already moved on from the veteran. But Arcega-Whiteside is almost as much of a mystery as the rookies, and thus stood to benefit from his first full offseason – until the pandemic hit.
Further complicating the transition of the rookies is another coaching change. Aaron Moorehead became Pederson’s fifth receivers coach in five years when the Eagles hired him in February. The former Colts receiver has seven years’ experience coaching the position, but this will be his first stint in the NFL.
Pederson had about a month in the building with Moorehead and his other new assistants before the shutdown began, but the only interaction he has seen between the assistant and the receivers has been on Microsoft Team meetings that began April 27.
“I can’t put those two together,” Pederson said when asked about Moorehead’s methods vs. his predecessors. “I can’t put what we’ve done in the past and what Aaron is doing now in the same bucket. It’s just not the same because we don’t have the grass time, so I can’t see him coaching on the grass. I can’t see him putting the players through drill work.”
Under normal circumstances, Eagles rookies would have already gone through a three-day minicamp. They would have joined Phase 2 of workouts, which involve in-class meetings and on-field conditioning, this week. And they would have participated in Phase 3, which adds practice under the guidance of coaches, next week.
But Philadelphia and its surrounding counties remain under Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home order until at least June 4. And even if they can move from the red to yellow phase in terms of social distancing, there are still restrictions that would make on-field practices unlikely through June.
The value of spring programs can be overstated. Each year, veterans skip the voluntary workouts without missing a beat once training camp begins. While most teams opted to at least hold virtual meetings, some like the New Orleans Saints, canceled the entire slate and told their players to be ready for camp.
Pederson said that the turnover on his staff with five new assistants, and the new faces in the Eagles’ sports medicine department, namely director of sports performance Ted Rath, made him decide to do as much as the league would permit.
To keep tabs on how the players are performing, Pederson said that he’s had his coaches send him an evaluation of how they’re processing the information being taught virtually. It has, in turn, also given him a peek into his new assistants’ methods.
“It’s a great gauge as to how Aaron is doing,” Pederson said.
The Eagles’ receivers coach has been the like Spinal Tap’s drummer – easily disposable, if not killed suspiciously. First there was Greg Lewis. Then Mike Groh, who would have the most success before being promoted to offensive coordinator, and alas, eventually fired. Gunter Brewer was next. And Carson Walch became the latest departure in January.
Like Walch with Arcega-Whiteside to some extent, Moorehead’s future will likely depend upon Reagor’s development. They have a history. Moorehead played with Reagor’s father, Montae, in Indianapolis, and tried to recruit him when he coached at Texas A&M.
Reagor chose Texas Christian instead. While most Big 12 teams run spread offenses, the speedy receiver will have to adjust to playing in a West Coast-based system with a large playbook and wordy terminology.
“There’s going to be a little bit of difference in the offensive systems,” Moorehead said in a recent interview with the Eagles website. “And he’s going to have to get up to speed there as far as teaching and some of the route concepts. … But he’s such a good athlete, I’m not worried that he won’t be able to pick it up.”
There’s more to making the leap to the NFL than having the necessary skill set. But recent history has shown that the Eagles rookies who would go on to have great careers (see: Jackson, Jeremy Maclin) and the ones who didn’t (see: Nelson Agholor, Josh Huff) had their futures foretold during their first practices as rookies.
The Eagles will have to wait a few more months before they get their first glimpses of the rookie receivers’ prospects – for this season and beyond.