Hey, what if the Eagles are really strong at wide receiver this year?
(Reporter breaks into a run, as villagers advance with pitchforks and torches.)
No, seriously. When training camp began, conventional wisdom held that the team hadn’t improved last year’s painful-to-watch grouping very much — in the short run, at least — because the Eagles mostly looked to their three wideout draft selections to fix things. With no spring work and no preseason games, significant immediate help from that group seemed unlikely.
They were bringing back DeSean Jackson at age 33, but after last season’s one big game and then eventual abdominal surgery, that had to be considered more of a hope than a plan.
The narrative might have changed with new developments. One is that rookies Jalen Reagor (first round), John Hightower (fifth round), and Quez Watkins (sixth round) do not look lost after all.
At this point, it will be a shock if Reagor doesn’t have a significant role in the offense, and Watkins and Hightower have delivered highlight-reel moments in camp practices. Wednesday, with Avonte Maddox draped across his shoulders, Hightower made a really strong end-zone catch of a bomb from Carson Wentz.
Also, what if J.J. Arcega-Whiteside turns out to be at least decent?
Yes, given the way 2019 went for Arcega-Whiteside and the wideout group, this projection could be seen as an implausible hurdling of a cartilaginous predatory fish. And yes, we spent much of last August touting the new, improved weapons Wentz was going to have for 2019. (That Miles Sanders guy was indeed pretty good, though.)
Wednesday’s practice featured some really nice catches in which the coverage was strong, and the receivers won the contest anyway. This was not the first such instance of camp.
Arcega-Whiteside, he of the 10 catches for 169 yards as a rookie, was asked after practice about a particular twisting catch at the back of the end zone for a touchdown.
“You’re going to have to be more specific,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “I think I had two or three of those today.”
Indeed he did.
The veteran of the secondary, safety Rodney McLeod, was asked Wednesday about the difference in the speed of the guys he’s covering in practice this year.
“It’s very different,” McLeod said. “For me, as a post safety, you just always have to be on alert. What’s most important is the yards after the catch. They have the skill set and the ability to take a 10-yard pass and turn it into 50 very quickly.”
Asked about the rookie trio, McLeod said: “I think they are ready. What I’ve seen from Jalen immediately has been the confidence. He’s a very confident guy. Confident not only in his speed but in his ability to make plays out there on the field. He’s showcasing that each and every day.
“They all have the ability, like I said, to run after the catch, turn a minimum gain into an explosive play. That’s what you need in your offense. Watkins and Hightower, those are guys that can really stretch the field. Been running toe-to-toe with them. They have a lot of speed, man.”
McLeod also referenced “everybody over there running 4.3s, I would say, at a minimum.”
Then there is Arcega-Whiteside, who was supposed to be one of those improved weapons of 2019 but proved to be totally overwhelmed and overmatched. He worked hard in the offseason to get trimmer and quicker. And he thought over a few things as well.
“Definitely, being healthier is a big part of it,” said Arcega-Whiteside, who apparently played through a foot injury as a rookie that might have been why he looked so slow getting in and out of breaks.
“Just being able to run, and, you know, my feet feel great. So now I can put force into the ground like I want to.”
His rookie-year struggles weren’t entirely physical.
“I feel like last year I was worried about a lot of outside things, what people thought of me, how people react to this catch or this touchdown or this mistake. This year, I really don’t care about much outside of what happens in this facility, other than what’s going on in my family,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “And I’ve been having a lot more fun. I mean every day, I get in the huddle, and me and Greg [Ward, the other slot receiver], we give each other kind of like a pep talk, I guess, trying to stay positive, keep things going.
“And then on top of that, we’ve got a lot of young, energetic guys, a great vibe in the room, to where, if one guy makes a mistake, we’re all gonna pick each other up. One guy does something good, we’re all gonna be there to celebrate with him.”
The pandemic-quarantined offseason at home in South Carolina had its benefits.
“Being able to be with family and staying home, and being reminded of where I come from, and the people that I have supporting me. So, yeah, that definitely helped me out a lot,” he said.
Arcega-Whiteside was never touted as a speed receiver at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds as a rookie (maybe 10 pounds less now, he says). He was touted as a red zone, post-up, contested-catch receiver. But he scored just one touchdown last season while playing 42% of the offensive snaps.
“In college, I think I had about 10 touchdowns just putting my body on people and jump-balling,” he said. “You can still do that in the NFL, but it’s not as easy. So I had to learn new some new tricks, some new techniques, to be able to get myself open and still get in those same positions. But you know, it’s not like I could just run up to them and body them up. I got to do different things.”
Arcega-Whiteside hinted at some changes in the routes he runs, with former offensive coordinator Mike Groh gone and quarterbacks coach Press Taylor running the passing game, along with senior offensive consultant Rich Scangerello. There also is a new wide receivers coach, Aaron Moorehead.
“Being able to run some different routes, running some ins, running some outs, running some stops … when I do put my body on the defender and get that jump ball, then they’re not thinking, ‘Oh yeah, it’s the jump ball coming all the time.’ [The defender] has to play more honest.
“But, yeah, we’re scheming things up. We’re doing some things to help each other, help everybody get open and take advantage of the defense.”