When the Eagles picked up Nelson Agholor’s $9.4 million fifth-year option in May 2018, few batted an eye. A Super Bowl had just been won and the wide receiver had as much to do with the team’s success that season as any player.
The Eagles had until the start of the 2019 league year in March to release or trade him without penalty, but even then, the decision to bring Agholor back wasn’t controversial. His performance in 2018, after all, had been nearly on par with the season prior.
But Agholor has reverted to his pre-2017 version. He’s been mistake-prone, ineffective and appears to have lost much of the confidence he gained when the Eagles moved him full time into the slot two years ago. He has – a reporter posited to Eagles offensive coordinator Mike Groh -- clearly regressed.
“I would say that that’s probably not fair,” Groh responded Tuesday.
Groh then proceeded to point out that Agholor has had to “wear a lot of different hats” the last two seasons, the suggestion being that playing multiple spots has affected his production. He’s right. It has. (More on that later.)
“In 2017, he was really able to really just kind of stay in one spot each and every week,” Groh said. “We were healthy the entire year and we had the same three, four guys rotating and performing the same job. His job description has changed over the last couple years due to necessity. … To me he’s still the same player.”
But he’s not even close to being the same player outside that he is in the slot. Nevertheless, his overall numbers say that he hasn’t been good at pretty much anything this season. Beyond just catches (3.9 in 2017-18 vs. 3.6 in 2019) and yards (47.0 in 2017-18 vs. 32.2 in 2019) per game, Agohlor’s production has decreased dramatically.
His catch ratio (65.6 percent in 2017-18 vs. 57.1 pct. in 2019) and yards after catch (5.3 in 2017-18 vs. 3.7 in 2019) have taken significant dips. And his yards per route run, maybe the most apt measurement for a receiver, has gone from 1.6 yards in 2017 to 1.2 yards in 2018 to a dead-last-in-the-NFL – among receivers with more than 45 routes run -- 0.9 yards in 2019.
Agholor hasn’t been the only Eagles receiver to struggle. Alshon Jeffery is on track to have statistically the worst season of his career, and youngsters J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Mack Hollins have failed to make even marginal impacts.
But no receiver has personified the inconsistencies of the Eagles’ passing offense more than Agholor. And in just two short years, the 26-year-old receiver has gone from Super Bowl hero to the most-often targeted player for fan ire.
Here’s a closer look at Agholor from two seasons ago, when he finally began to justify a 2015 first-round draft pick, to this season, when he has made it all but certain that this will be his last season in Philadelphia:
Sunday’s Seahawks game is a reminder of both ends of the Agholor spectrum. In a 2016 game at Seattle, he lined up illegally, negating a 57-yard Zach Ertz touchdown. Agholor had gotten so down on himself that coach Doug Pederson benched him the following week.
But a year later, after the move to the slot, Agholor would have statistically the best game of his career, catching seven passes for 141 yards and this touchdown.
This catch exemplified Agholor at his best. He lined up in the slot, worked off press coverage, and got separation downfield after a Torrey Smith rub route. The large majority of his snaps (87 percent), receptions (87 percent), receiving yards (98 percent) and all eight of his touchdowns in 2017 came when he lined up inside.
But injuries to receivers Mike Wallace and DeSean Jackson the last two seasons led to the Eagles playing Agholor more on the outside.
Agholor: It is what it is. I’ve trained at a level to put myself in a position to help out in that way, when people go down.
But Agholor has struggled on the outside, just as he did from 2015-16, when he caught only 55.2 percent of targets. In 2018, he lined up outside 43.5 percent of the time. But only 39 percent of his passes (25 of 64) and receiving yards (293 of 736) came from that spot, and only one of his four touchdown catches.
He hasn’t been asked to line up outside as much this season – 31 percent of the time – but even a lower percentage of his receptions (19.4) and receiving yards (24.8) have come from that position.
There are different skills emphasized on the outside. Receivers are further from the quarterback so the ball travels longer and on different angles. Outside receivers will also see more press coverage because they often don’t have the luxury of two-way goes vs. man defense. On this play vs. Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara, for instance, Agholor had trouble getting off the line and his route was disrupted.
Groh was asked Tuesday if the Eagles had plans to return Agholor exclusively to the slot.
Groh: He is used in that role. It’s just he’s spread out and doing a bunch of other things, as well. Trying to manage that is one of the things that we have to do, and again, putting him in the best position to be successful and do the things that he does really well, and we have a lot of confidence in Nelson Agholor.
A lot has been made of Agholor’s struggles on deep passes. He’s caught only 2 of 13 targets over 20 yards this season. It’s not like he hasn’t had long ball production in his career. He caught 13 of 36 deep passes from 2017-18.
Eagles receivers coach Carson Walch: I don’t think Nelly’s plagued by the deep ball whatsoever. I’ve seen him make those plays over the last two years.
But of the 15 plus-20 air yard catches he’s made in the last three seasons, only one has come when he lined up outside. If he can’t get separation, he usually struggles to track the ball or he falls when there is the slightest of contact, as he did here on this go route.
When Agholor has gotten deep separation this season, it’s been from the slot. His longest catch of the season – a 43-yarder against the Falcons – came when he lined up inside, as he did with this pass. Agholor was held, but Pederson challenged for pass interference and the play stood.
Pederson: He’s gotten behind the defense and was knocked off his route twice [vs. the Jets], otherwise maybe he’s got two touchdowns and we’re sitting here going, “Holy cow, what a game.”
But Agholor’s deep ball tracking, even from the slot, has only regressed. He got roasted by some for his effort on this deep cross vs. Dallas.
But effort wasn’t the primary issue.
Groh: I thought he gave tremendous effort; played with great speed down the field. I thought he located the ball maybe a little bit later in the down than we would like and made it a difficult.
The 2017 Agholor would have likely made that grab, as he did here on a similar route.
But Agholor’s confidence has seemingly been rattled. Given more responsibility after Jackson left in the Atlanta game in Week 2, he initially did yeoman’s work. But he dropped this potential game-winning pass – again after lining up outside.
There was some speculation that he had lost the ball in the lights.
Agholor: I’ve still got to make that play. It’s something we prepare for in pregame, we were trying to track it in the lights. … I’ve got to find a way to catch them all. Remember where it’s going to be, look it all the way in.
Drops had been an issue early in Agholor’s career, but he had become more sure-handed in 2017-18. He has only three this season, according to Pro Football Focus, but labeling drops can be subjective. Some thought that Agholor should have pulled in this fourth down heave from Carson Wentz against the Patriots Sunday.
Agholor’s coaches weren’t as critical.
Groh: That’s a tough adjustment based on the direction and the target line that we have him on, and then where the ball kind of fell back over his inside shoulder, and he’s the kind of guy who would say he’d love to make that play. But that wasn’t a routine play.
Agholor: I would have loved to have finished the last one no matter the level of difficulty. I actually did a lot to put myself in position to even catch that. My route was to go to the back pylon. It was in the air, my guy was under distress, he put it up, and I tried to track it.
Earlier in the Patriots game, Agholor had little chance to make this catch in the back of the end zone. But to not even try and meet the ball and get both feet in bounds spoke to a lack of field awareness.
Groh: He was really just reacting to the situation as the play got extended. And then the ball took him to the corner of the end zone on that one.
It’s not like Agholor hasn’t made difficult grabs before. This touchdown catch vs. the Giants two years ago immediately sprung to mind.
But Agholor said Tuesday that he hasn’t recently watch film of 2017 as a reminder of past successes.
Agholor: The problem is you can’t keep trying to revert back to 2017. That season was truly a special opportunity for us, it was a special year. We faced different challenges then than we have now. For me, it’s how can you truly capitalize on what’s going on in 2019, personnel, situations, scenarios, whatever. That’s what’s on my mind.
There have been flashes this season. This 20-yard catch, run, and spin for a touchdown was vintage 2017 Agholor.
And Agholor helped Wentz out with this pass that was thrown slightly behind him.
But there have been far too few moments when Agholor, or really any of the Eagles receivers, have bailed their quarterback out or rewarded his trust.
Wentz: I have a lot of confidence in Nelson. Just first of all, how hard he works, how bad he wants to be great.
But is Agholor trying too hard? Some players have difficulty playing in contract years.