Four-and-half years ago, after having his front-office power restored by owner Jeffrey Lurie following Chip Kelly’s firing, Howie Roseman called former Southern Cal coach Steve Sarkisian to pick his brain about one of his former players, Nelson Agholor.
Agholor, who caught 104 passes for Sarkisian his last year at USC, was taken by Kelly with the 20th overall pick in the 2015 draft, but he struggled mightily as a rookie, catching just 23 passes.
Agholor had played primarily in the slot for the Trojans, but lined up outside 89% of the time during his first season with the Eagles because Jordan Matthews was entrenched in the slot. Matthews caught a team-high 85 passes in 2015, 81 of them out of the slot.
Sarkisian told Roseman what he pretty much already knew: Agholor wasn’t an outside receiver. He wasn’t a “natural'' receiver. He told the Eagles general manager that the best ways to use the kid was in the slot and on quick-hitting plays like bubble screens, jet sweeps and end-arounds.
With Matthews still with the Eagles in 2016, Agholor once again was used primarily on the outside by the team’s new head coach, Doug Pederson. He lined up in the slot on just 13% of his offensive snaps and caught a quiet 36 passes with only two touchdowns.
A month before the 2017 season, Matthews was traded to the Buffalo Bills in a deal for cornerback Ronald Darby, and Agholor finally was moved to the slot full-time. He had his best season that year, catching 62 passes – 54 of them out of the slot – and eight touchdowns (all from the slot) and played an important role in the Eagles’ Super Bowl run.
Fast forward to the 2020 draft. The Eagles had the 21st pick in the first round. They badly needed a wide receiver.
LSU’s Justin Jefferson, who caught 111 passes and had 18 touchdown catches for the national-champion Tigers the previous season, still was on the board and seemed the logical choice. But the Eagles passed on Jefferson and took another wideout instead, Jalen Reagor. Jefferson was taken by the Minnesota Vikings with the very next pick.
The purpose here isn’t to rush to judgment on whether the Eagles did the right or wrong thing by taking Reagor over Jefferson. The purpose is to help you understand why they chose Reagor over Jefferson.
The short answer is that Roseman and the Eagles wanted an outside receiver who could put the fear of God into opposing cornerbacks and safeties, and they felt Reagor had the ability to do that better than Jefferson.
Jefferson played primarily in the slot for LSU in 2019. He was absolutely dominant in the middle of the field.
But when the Eagles looked at his tape from a year earlier when he played mainly outside, they saw a guy who was more like Alshon Jeffery than DeSean Jackson; a guy who lived off of contested catches, not somebody who got separation and forced safeties to play deeper.
In Reagor, despite a disappointing final season at TCU in which his pass-catching production took a nosedive, they saw a vertical threat on the outside who also could challenge defenses horizontally on bubble screens, jet sweeps and end-arounds. They felt they needed an outside separator who could change the way defenses played them.
As with Jefferson, they put a lot of credence in Reagor’s 2018 tape when he was playing with an experienced quarterback and caught 72 passes for 1,061 yards and nine touchdowns.
Roseman had established a good relationship with Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley over the last few years. He even talked to him about Reagor. Riley had recruited Reagor when he was coming out of high school. Riley told Roseman that if he had played at Oklahoma, he would’ve been a 100-catch receiver.
The 6-1, 202-pound Jefferson surprised a lot of teams, including the Eagles, when he ran an impressive 4.43 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine in late February.
Even with that, though, the Eagles still felt his best position was inside. And because of the nature of their offense, they didn’t feel a slot receiver, no matter how good, had enough value to them with the 21st pick in the draft.
In Pederson’s offense, outside receivers and running backs both are ranked above slot wide receivers in order of importance.
The Eagles also use both of their tight ends as slot weapons, which further reduces the need for an ultra-productive slot wide receiver. Last year, Zach Ertz was targeted 49 times out of the slot and had 31 of his 88 overall receptions. Dallas Goedert was targeted 29 times out of the slot and had 23 of his 58 catches lining up there.
In 2018, when Ertz broke the NFL single-season record for receptions by a tight end, 56 of his 116 catches were out of the slot.
In the four years Pederson has been the Eagles’ head coach, 43.6% of Ertz’s total targets (221 of 507) and 45.4% of his total receptions (162 of 357) have been out of the slot.
Looking for Mr. Outside
So what the Eagles felt they needed most at wide receiver this offseason was not another strong-bodied, physical receiver like Alshon Jeffery or J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, but receivers who could get separation on the outside. Receivers – they hope – like Jalen Reagor and fifth-rounder John Hightower, who they hope can be their version of the Giants’ Darius Slayton, and sixth-rounder Quez Watkins.
Maybe DeSean Jackson manages to stay healthy this season and maybe he doesn’t. Doesn’t really matter. He’s 33. The 2020 season will be his swan song, at least in Philadelphia.
After Jackson got hurt last season, opposing safeties got much braver and moved up closer to the line of scrimmage. Carson Wentz could smell their breath. Made everything more congested for the Eagles quarterback and his receivers.
The emergence of former practice-squad player Greg Ward also played into the decision to draft Reagor over Jefferson. Ward proved late last season that he can be a dependable slot weapon for the Eagles going forward.
The converted quarterback out of the University of Houston saved their playoff bacon with a game-winning touchdown catch against Washington in Week 15. Ward played 310 snaps in the last six games, 123 of them in the slot. He was targeted 30 times in the slot and had 22 catches.
The Eagles haven’t really have had a high-volume slot receiver in the last decade and a half. Since 2007, they’ve had a slot receiver with more than 80 targets and/or 55 receptions just twice. Matthews had 81 catches on 114 slot targets in 2015 and 64 catches on 94 targets in 2014. Kelly was the coach both of those years.
Last year, Eagles wide receivers caught a total of 67 passes out of the slot. That was the ninth fewest in the league.
Some might suggest that’s a good reason why they should’ve drafted Jefferson. But the Pederson/Andy Reid offense just doesn’t rely that much on a slot receiver. And when the Eagles looked around the league at some of the other elite offenses over the last few years, they found that the key was speed on the outside, not a possession receiver on the inside.
Reid’s Super Bowl-champion Kansas City Chiefs finished fifth in scoring and sixth in total yards last season. Their wide receivers finished 13th in slot receptions with 83, but second in touchdown catches (11).
As with Ertz, tight end Travis Kelce was the Chiefs’ top slot producer, catching 34 of his 97 passes from the slot. Kelce has led the Chiefs in slot receptions six years in a row.
The San Francisco 49ers, who lost to the Chiefs in the Super Bowl, finished second in scoring and fourth in total yards. They finished tied for 15th in slot receptions by wide receivers with 78. Their tight end, George Kittle, had 34 of his 85 catches from the slot.
In Kyle Shanahan’s three seasons as the Niners’ head coach, his team has averaged just 68 catches per year from their slot wide receivers. In 2016, when Shanahan was the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator, the Falcons finished first in the league in scoring and made it to the Super Bowl, even though they had just 81 catches from slot receivers.