An important chronology to consider as we get ready for Week 1:
On April 30, 2018, the Eagles exercised the fifth-year option on the rookie contract of Nelson Agholor, which guaranteed the wide receiver a salary of $9 million this season. A little under 11 months later, on March 14 of this year, they signed DeSean Jackson to a three-year contract. Two weeks after that, on March 28, they made another addition to their offense when they traded a sixth round pick to the Chicago Bears for running back Jordan Howard.
You don’t need to work for Page-A-Day to see that each of these events occurred prior to April 26, 2019. That’s a notable fact, because April 26 was the date that the Eagles spent a couple of second-round picks on a wide receiver and a running back. Which means that the decisions to keep Agholor around and add Jackson and Howard to the fold did not account for the presence of Miles Sanders or J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. And that means that we don’t really have a good idea what kind of role Doug Pederson envisions for either rookie, especially after a preseason in which the Eagles kept their first-teamers stowed away for safe keeping.
As far as I am concerned, this is the most interesting question hovering over this team as it heads into Sunday’s season opener against Washington. The safe assumption is that Sanders will begin the year as part of a backfield rotation, and that Arcega-Whiteside will struggle to find the field behind a talented group of pass-catchers that includes Agholor, Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz, and Dallas Goedert. But the reality is we don’t really know what, exactly, the Eagles think of either rookie beyond the made-for-TV banalities that come out of Pederson’s press conference every few days.
Sanders’ path to playing time is relatively clear. Under Pederson, the Eagles have a history of using multiple backs during the course of a game. Only four times in his three seasons as head coach have the Eagles had a single running back carry the ball at least 20 times in a game. Two of those occasions came last season, when Josh Adams was the Eagles only healthy running back of note. Pederson also has a history of feeding the hot hand, regardless of the guy’s pedigree.
Even if the Eagles start the season with a run distribution similar to what they deployed when Jay Ajayi first joined the team in 2017 -- LeGarrette Blount got the bulk of the work, with Ajayi getting 6 to 10 carries a game -- Sanders should have plenty of opportunity to shift the balance in his favor. Though Howard has played a featured back role in each of his first three years in the NFL, he has caught just 72 passes for 568 yards during that time. Over the last three seasons, he has converted 25 percent of his runs in and-1 situations for first downs (2nd-and-1, 3rd-and-1, etc). That ranks 11th out of 62 backs with at least 200 carries. But take that stat for what it’s worth. Wendell Smallwood ranks just three slots behind him, converting 24.6 percent of such runs. And while it’s true that Howard is best between the tackles, it doesn’t mean that he’s the best: over the last three seasons, his yards-per-catch average has fallen from 5.2 to 4.7 to 3.7.
As for Arcega-Whiteside, it certainly looks on paper as if the opportunities will be far less bountiful than those enjoyed by his fellow rookie. With Jackson, Agholor, and Jeffery ahead of him on the depth chart at wide receiver, and Ertz and Goedert established at tight end, any snaps for the kid they call JJAW will have to come at the expense of somebody who is currently ahead of him in Carson Wentz’s progressions. But I’m not sure we should take it for granted that he should or will spend all season in a minimal role.
Maybe the opportunity will come via injury. Both Jeffery and Jackson have missed at least two games in three of their last four seasons. Even if both stay healthy, it will be interesting to see if the Eagles find a way to get Arcega-Whiteside some looks. He brings a strength and physicality to the position that the Eagles have not had over the last few seasons. In their preseason game against the Ravens in Week 3, when Arcega-Whiteside caught eight passes for 104 yards and a touchdown, we saw that he also brings some hands and route-running ability to the field.
The last three seasons have seen a trio of second-round picks make a significant impact as rookies. In 2016, Michael Thomas caught 92 passes for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns for the Saints, leading New Orleans to trade away Brandin Cooks the following offseason. In the two years since, Thomas has solidified himself as one of the best possession receivers in the game. In 2017, JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns for the Pittsburgh Steelers, while Cooper Kupp caught 62 passes for 869 yards and five touchdowns for the Los Angeles Rams.
All of those stat lines are better than any that Agholor has given the Eagles in his four years with the club. While he has put the disappointment of his first couple seasons behind him, averaging 63 catches, 752 yards and six touchdowns in 2017 and 2018, the former first round pick hasn’t looked like anything better than a solid system wide receiver. Plus, he is going to be a free agent after the season.
Arcega-Whiteside played predominantly on the outside at Stanford, but his skill set would seem to fit nicely in the middle of the field. At this point, there’s not enough evidence to suggest that he’d be an upgrade over Agholor. Moreso, the point is that we really don’t know what the Eagles envision out of him as a rookie. But he has shown enough to suggest that he might force his way into their plans at some point this season.