It’s no secret that JJ Arcega-Whiteside’s first two NFL seasons weren’t anywhere close to what he or the Eagles had hoped for.
Selected in the second round of the 2019 draft, the 6-2, 225-pound wide receiver out of Stanford has just 14 catches and one touchdown in 24 games.
Last year, on a team whose entire wide-receiving corps finished with a total of 166 receptions, Arcega-Whiteside couldn’t even get on the field.
He played just 141 offensive snaps in eight games — he spent two games on the reserve-COVID list but otherwise was completely healthy — and was targeted just eight times with four catches.
Particularly grating to Eagles fans has been the impressive production of other wide receivers that the Eagles passed on in favor of Arcega-Whiteside in the ‘19 draft, including Seattle’s DK Metcalf and Washington’s Terry McLaurin.
Metcalf caught 83 passes for 1,303 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, including 10 for 177 yards against the Eagles. He also had seven catches for 160 yards and one TD in Seattle’s 2019 playoff win over the Eagles.
McLaurin has 145 catches and 11 touchdowns in his first two seasons. As a rookie, he had two 100-yard receiving performances against the Eagles.
Arcega-Whiteside would seem to have all of the physical tools to be a successful NFL wideout. He’s a big target with a huge catch radius. He runs a sub-4.5 40-yard dash. He’s smart. He had 1,059 receiving yards and 14 TDs his last year at Stanford.
“He’s a very crafty guy in his separation and his ability to use his basketball skills to box out guys,” general manager Howie Roseman said when the Eagles drafted JJAW. “He creates separation from that, and then he showed at his pro day his athleticism as well. The guy is a good football player and we’re happy to get him.”
But here we are, three years later, and the Eagles’ happiness to get JJAW has subsided significantly. He finds himself fighting for a roster spot on a team with a new coaching staff.
The Eagles have 10 wideouts on their roster. They’ll likely keep six. Three of those six spots will be going to first-round rookie DeVonta Smith, 2020 first-rounder Jalen Reagor, and slot receiver Greg Ward, who had a team-high 53 receptions last year.
Arcega-Whiteside, enigmatic Travis Fulgham, 2020 draft picks John Hightower and Quez Watkins and undrafted rookie Jhamon Ausbon will compete for the final three spots.
Arcega-Whiteside went back to college during the offseason to try to find a way to elevate his pro game and turn him into the player he believes he is capable of being.
He didn’t go back to college as in enroll in school. But he did talk with his coaches back at Stanford to find out what exactly it was that made him successful there and see if he could replicate it in Philadelphia.
“I took a lot of time to reflect over the summer and over this offseason and asked myself what worked for me at Stanford,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “What was the turning point in college that got me from Point A to Point B, and then to Point C, and then to here?
“I just told myself, if it worked once it can work again. Why not go back to what got me here in the first place?”
Arcega-Whiteside talked to his college strength coach about the training regimen he followed at Stanford and went back to it in the offseason.
“He gave me my plan from college and said, ‘Listen, just do that,’ ” he said. “He said that’s what you did in college and that’s when you became who you are. So that’s basically what I did. I did that plan that we had set from when I was a sophomore in college.
“I mimicked what I did every day in college. If we had an early-morning workout and drills on certain days, that’s what I did. Conditioning on these days? Same thing. I didn’t stray from that.”
Whether that will make a difference, whether that will help Arcega-Whiteside become a productive NFL receiver, only time will tell.
The Eagles’ new head coach, Nick Sirianni, has been giving JJAW some training camp reps in the slot. So far, he’s looked comfortable when he’s lined up there.
“I like it,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “Especially since it gives me a taste of every position — inside and outside. With a new coaching staff, they want to see where guys can shine. That’s a good thing. Because if you never go inside, you never know whether you’re good at it or not.
“So far, I’ve been real comfortable playing there. But I’ve also been real comfortable playing outside.”
Comfortable, but not productive. And it will be productivity that will determine whether JJAW spends a third season with the Eagles or winds up on the waiver wire.
“The biggest thing is just being myself,” he said. “I feel like in the past, I was trying to be a lot at once. I was trying to show that I can do this and can do that.
“I’m just going back to the basics. Going back to what helped me out in college, which is being great at the things that require no talent and then letting the talent take over when it’s time for the talent to take over, and not the opposite. Not trying to show everybody how talented I am and do this and that. Next thing you know, I’m being somebody I’m not.”
If all of that seems just a little bit confusing, it isn’t to Arcega-Whiteside.
“I feel comfortable out here,” he said. “I feel like I’m back to myself. I just went back to what worked for me in college. Stick to that and build off of that.”