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Why the Eagles drafted J.J. Arcega-Whiteside over DK Metcalf and other wide receivers

The second-round pick had a disappointing season, but he and Howie Roseman are expecting improvement next year.

Eagles wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside talks with reporters as players clean out their lockers at the NovaCare practice facility on Monday.
Eagles wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside talks with reporters as players clean out their lockers at the NovaCare practice facility on Monday.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

It was bad enough the Eagles drafted J.J. Arcega-Whiteside ahead of DK Metcalf, but to have the latter receiver so outplay the former at their expense in Sunday’s playoff loss to the Seahawks had to be particularly frustrating for the team.

But not likely for reasons related to the evaluation of Metcalf. He had one of the Eagles’ higher draft grades and was rated ahead of Arcega-Whiteside, who was chosen seven picks before Seattle took the Ole Miss product in the second round, NFL sources told The Inquirer.

Metcalf wasn’t on the Eagles’ draft board in the first two rounds, however, because he failed the team’s physical, sources said. A neck injury in October 2018 ended his redshirt sophomore season and was enough to drop him into latter-round assessments for some teams, including the Eagles.

“I don’t want to get into where guys were,” general manager Howie Roseman said Wednesday when asked about Metcalf and the Eagles’ board. “We take a lot of factors into account, not just talking about DK, whether it’s medical, whether it’s character, whether it’s production, whether it’s fit.

“And, listen, there are going to be a lot of guys who are drafted later than we pick that are going to end up being good players.”

In the case of Arcega-Whiteside and the receiver position alone, there were many. Metcalf, freakishly built and athletic, caught 58 passes for 900 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season as a rookie. Terry McLaurin was drafted by the Redskins in the third round and finished his first season with 58 catches for 919 yards and seven touchdowns.

The Steelers’ Diontae Johnson (third round), the Raiders’ Hunter Renfrow (fifth), and the New York Giants’ Darius Slayton (fifth) didn’t put up those kinds of numbers, but they each caught at least 48 passes for 600 yards and four touchdowns.

But their production wouldn’t matter as much if Arcega-Whiteside had contributed more than he did, or at least showed significant upside. But he didn’t, despite opportunities when starters DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, and Nelson Agholor suffered injuries.

In 16 games playing 492 offensive snaps, the Stanford product caught just 10 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown. In Sunday’s wild-card game, Arcega-Whiteside was on the field for just 12 snaps and wasn’t targeted once.

Metcalf, meanwhile, caught 7 of 9 passes for 160 yards and a 53-yard touchdown in the Seahawks’ 17-9 victory.

“J.J.’s a talented kid,” Roseman said in his first interview since before the season. “He’s got tools in his body. … That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have to take a jump, because he does. This offseason’s really important for him. I don’t think we saw the best of J.J.”

Arcega-Whiteside’s slow development certainly hindered the Eagles, but nowhere near as much as the starting receivers did, with their injuries and assorted struggles. The combined statistics for Jackson, Jeffery, and Agholor (91 catches for 1,012 yards and 9 touchdowns in 24 games) were the lowest for the top three receivers in franchise history since 1990 (receptions) and 1976 (yards).

Roseman, as expected, said that final decisions have yet to be made on personnel. But he acknowledged that the Eagles didn’t get enough out of their receivers this season.

“When we look at who we started the season with and our starting three receivers, obviously they weren’t out there in the playoffs,” Roseman said. “So we got to look at that.”

Agholor, a free agent in March, is unlikely to return. Jeffery has two years left on his contract and has $11.5 million guaranteed for 2020. The Eagles guaranteed the 29-year-old receiver’s $9.91 million base salary just before the season.

“He took a pay cut in exchange for guaranteeing,” Roseman said. “For us, we were trying to create as much flexibility going forward with our roster, to create cap space to improve the football team.”

Roseman was likely anticipating adding a big name before the trade deadline — and alluded to being in negotiations for Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey and Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick — but the Eagles never utilized that space.

If the Eagles were to want to move on from Jeffery this offseason, they would have to eat approximately $26 million with a release. There is offset language in his contract that would allow the Eagles to recoup some money lost, however, if he were to sign with another team. A trade would save them $10 million and is more probable.

“I think we forget some of the contributions to our team Alshon has had,” Roseman said. “During our Super Bowl year the injury he played with, not missing a game, and the contributions in that Super Bowl game. Last year, he had 11 catches during the playoffs. Even when you look at this year, in his last [full] game, he had [9] catches for over 130 yards in the Miami game.

“Alshon is a talented player. He loves being an Eagle. He loves this city.”

But aside from the Dolphins game, Jeffery never finished with more than 76 yards receiving in a game and caught passes in only eight games. A Lisfranc foot injury ended his season in Week 14. Jeffery, it should be noted, has also struggled to develop on-field chemistry with quarterback Carson Wentz.

Jackson had an explosive start, catching 9 passes for 154 yards and 2 touchdowns in the opener, but he suffered an abdomen injury in Week 2 and hardly played again. A core muscle surgery ended his season for good in November.

The Eagles were never able to find a suitable replacement to stretch defenses. Roseman said that Agholor was “one of the top 10 fastest receivers in the league,” according to GPS tracking numbers, but the former first-round pick failed to make grabs downfield.

The 33-year-old Jackson is under contract and carries an $8.609 million cap number for 2020, but Roseman said the Eagles needed “to infuse youth on this team” and that adding speed remained a priority.

One receiver will return: Arcega-Whiteside.

“Obviously, I could’ve done a lot of things better,” Arcega-Whiteside said Monday during locker clean-out. “But I got one [season] under my belt. There’s nowhere to go but up from here. I’m going to attack this offseason and become the player I know I can be for this team.”

The Eagles, during the evaluation process, valued the 6-foot-3 Arcega-Whiteside’s ability to high-point 50-50 balls. He had also been durable and productive in college. But there was internal concern about his lack of explosiveness, his stiff hips, and ultimately there was division in the Eagles’ leadership as to his worth, sources said.

Arcega-Whiteside isn’t the first early-round receiver to struggle in his first season. If he were to take a significant leap in Year 2, he wouldn’t be the first either. Some receivers need more time than others. Roseman noted that three of the top rookie receivers — Metcalf, McLaurin, and Slayton — never caught more than 40 passes in a season during college.

“Is that a factor for us when we look at college production and we kind of see how important that is to us?” Roseman asked. “Do we need to go back and look at that? I think we do.”

The Eagles might get another opportunity to test that trend. They are expected to have 10 draft picks. They still have a need at receiver. And the coming draft is said to be especially deep at the position.