What do you do when you head home from a rookie NFL season that was pretty much a disaster?
J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, the Eagles’ 2019 second-round pick who caught just 10 passes for 169 yards despite playing 42% of the snaps in an injury-ravaged wideout corps, says that he owned up to his failures and did the work he felt he had to do to salvage his career.
“I got away from football. I took a trip or two. That was the biggest thing people were telling me at the end of the season: ‘Make sure you get away; mentally and physically reset.’ So I got out a little bit. And then, honestly, I was just working hard,” Arcega-Whiteside said after Thursday’s practice.
“I never really posted anything about it or told anyone what I was doing … . I knew, mentally, for me, it was what I needed to do. I don’t need to show anybody else that I was having seven-hour workout days.”
When friends and family back in South Carolina asked what had happened – he went through a six-game stretch with no catches — “I kept it real,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “It wasn’t good enough. You turn on the TV, you could see it.
“But 2019 is in the past. I look back on it now, and I’m thinking, ‘Man I’m a totally different player than I was then,’ and I kind of laugh about it, because I’m like, ‘I don’t even know who that was.’
“That just happens to some people. Some people, you know, get to the NFL, and things are moving fast, and it’s hard to keep up. Some people ball out their first year. I look back at it like I’m not even the same guy, so I’m not even worried about what happened last year.”
Yes, rookies can struggle, but Arcega-Whiteside, billed as a contested-catch standout with 4.49 speed, showed no ability to separate, and at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, he didn’t soar over anyone to pluck 50-50 balls. He looked like a big running back miscast as a wide receiver. He also looked uncertain and confused, and he acknowledged during the season that he was struggling to learn the offense.
Afterward, the Eagles let it be known that Arcega-Whiteside dealt with unspecified injuries through much of the season, which could have been pure excuse-making or could have been at least part of the reason he looked so painfully slow.
“I was dealing with a couple of injuries,” Arcega-Whiteside said Thursday. “It’s football, it’s what you expect. It was definitely probably the first time that I had injuries that I had to play through for a long period of time. Usually in college or high school, I remember being out a week or two and just being healthy the rest of the season. So that was definitely a first for me.”
Meanwhile, D.K. Metcalf and Terry McLaurin, rookie receivers drafted after Arcega-Whiteside, caught 58 passes apiece, with seven touchdowns apiece, for Seattle and Washington, respectively. McLaurin gained 919 receiving yards, Metcalf 900, and both had big days against the Eagles, of course; Metcalf helped end the Eagles’ season in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
This offseason, the Eagles moved toward an emphasis on speed up and down the roster, and in their draft philosophy, as they moved away from former personnel czar Joe Douglas’s emphasis on college production.
They might as well have hung a poster in the draft room of Arcega-Whiteside with a red diagonal slash on it.
The Eagles spent their first-round draft pick on wide receiver Jalen Reagor and fifth- and sixth-round picks on wideouts John Hightower and Quez Watkins.
But second-round picks don’t get discarded after one season. Arcega-Whiteside missed the first days of padded practice this week with an apparent minor leg injury. He returned Thursday and split first-team reps with Reagor. Playing time won’t come as easily as it did a year ago – when Arcega-Whiteside wasn’t ready for it – but he will get a chance to back up his assertion that he is a changed player.
Coach Doug Pederson said Thursday that Arcega-Whiteside reported “in the right frame of mind” and is “in a really good spot. He understands our offense.”
“I hate to say I know all the plays,” Arcega-Whiteside said, “because, obviously, there’s going to be a day or two where I have a mental error, but I’m pretty confident in the plays. I don’t go into practice with my script in my hand, trying to memorize the plays that I have.”
He said he trimmed 5 to 10 pounds and worked on his route-running.
“Definitely last year, I didn’t show that I could run,” he said.
Asked about the rookie wide receivers, whose speed has stood out every day this week, Arcega-Whiteside talked about competition bringing out the best in people, a truism heard a lot in the NFL.