Early Birds: State of the Roster: Wide receivers/Tight ends
The Eagles roster is at the maximum of 90 players after the draft. We'll spend the next two weeks resetting the table and taking a position-by-position look at the Birds as Chip Kelly begins the process of assessing his 2015 squad.
The schedule: May 18: Quarterbacks/specialists; May 19: Running backs; May 20: Wide receivers/Tight ends; May 21: Offensive line; May 22: Defensive line; May 25: Inside linebackers; May 26: Outside linebackers; May 27: Safeties; May 28: Cornerbacks.
What's new: Nelson Agholor, Miles Austin, Seyi Ajirotutu, John Harris, Rasheed Bailey, Devante Davis.
For the second straight offseason, the Eagles had significant turnover at the position after the departure of a Pro Bowler receiver. Jeremy Maclin is out (via free agency) and, most prominently, Agholor is in. Chip Kelly also signed veteran Austin as insurance and added special teamer Ajirotutu.
Agholor has some similarities to Maclin, size being one. They both came out of college at around the same height (6-footish) and weight (198 pounds or so). They also ran comparable 40-yard dash times at the combine (in the 4.4 range). There are also stylistic similarities, but Kelly said he considered Maclin mostly an outside guy and Agholor a receiver that can work both inside and out. Maclin, for the record, put up some pretty good numbers in the slot in 2012, catching 27 of 39 targets for 385 yards).
Agholor has to show he can make the transition to be mentioned as a possible starter, but the guess here is that Kelly will move his receivers around more frequently. Jordan Matthews ran 92.4 percent of his routes out of the slot last season as a rookie. Agholor and Matthews could rotate inside and out if Riley Cooper (or Josh Huff or Austin) was to handle most of the outside responsibilities on the other side.
The Austin signing still confounds. Perhaps he supplants Cooper and Huff, but it's more likely that he gets part time snaps. Typically, a fourth or fifth receiver active on game days will have to contribute on special teams -- something Austin hasn't done in years. But if Cooper and Huff pick up the special teams slack, then perhaps Austin can get away with just chipping in on offense. Still, giving the 30-year old a contract that guarantees $1 million didn't make much sense at that late free agency date and will be a waste if he were to suffer another injury or one of the undrafted rookies were to make a push for the 53-man roster.
Harris may have the best chance. The 6-2, 215-pound Texas product didn't do much until his senior season when he caught 68 passes for 1,051 yards and seven touchdowns, but he could be a sleeper -- or a one-year wonder. Davis (6-3, 220) is similarly sized, but was more productive over his four years at UNLV. Bailey set all kinds of records at Division III Delaware Valley, but will have an uphill climb to make the roster -- like all undrafted rookies.
What's old: Jordan Matthews, Josh Huff, Riley Cooper, Jeff Maehl, Quron Pratt.
Matthews and Huff don't exactly qualify as "old," but both should have a more significant role in the offense as they enter Year 2. Matthews flourished in the second half of last season, catching 35 passes for 559 yards (16.0 avg.) and five touchdowns. Mark Sanchez came to rely on Matthews over the middle, perhaps too often at the expense of Maclin and Cooper on the outside. But credit has to be given to Matthews, who became more reliable as the season progressed. He should play much more than the 65 percent he played in 2014.
Huff has an opportunity to increase his responsibilities. I'm anxious to see if he's made any strides this offseason. He flashed as a runner with the ball in the hands, but he had problems catching and sometimes holding onto the ball. He will likely enter training camp as the No. 1 kick returner.
Cooper's regression last season has been dissected many times. He wasn't as productive as he was in 2013 and had some pivotal drops early in the season. So what will his role be in 2015? Matthews, Agholor and Huff will have the most to say about that. They're the future.
Maehl was inactive for seven of the last eight games. His two-year run in Philly is in jeopardy. Pratt spent all of last year on the practice squad.
Projected lineup: Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, Riley Cooper, Josh Huff, Miles Austin, Seyi Ajirotutu.
Agholor won't be given anything, but it would be a shock if he didn't leapfrog Cooper and Huff and became the second-most utilized receiver behind Matthews. There's been some speculation that the Eagles could cut Cooper post-June 1 and save $1 million, but they would still lose $3.8 million in dead money with the move. In other words, it's not happening. Cooper will return for what could be his last season with the Birds.
Huff is assured a roster spot, but he has to show some sort of improvement to justify a third-round price tag. Austin isn't assured anything, but the Eagles will burn $1 million if they decide there isn't room on the roster for the 10-year vet. Ajirotutu signed for the veteran minimum. He's a solid special teams contributor and Kelly understands the value of those types of players. If Austin or Ajirotutu were to falter or get injured, Harris could snap up one of those jobs.
What's new: Eric Tomlinson, Justin Tukes, Andrew Gleichert.
After the draft, Kelly noted that he needed to add tight ends after the Eagles went the offseason without replacing James Casey. So three undrafted rookies were signed. Tomlinson, Tukes and Gleichert aren't guaranteed anything – the Eagles could easily carry just three tight ends – but if one of them makes a strong case like Trey Burton did last year, Kelly will have a tough decision to make.
Tomlinson may have the best chance. He's the biggest of three (6-3, 263) and has probably the most upside. He's a solid blocker and an OK receiver. Tukes and Gleichert – from Central Florida and Michigan State, respectively – are try-hard prospects. Both can block. Gleichert has some history at fullback, which could help his cause.
What's old: Brent Celek, Zach Ertz, Trey Burton.
Celek returns for his ninth season. Aside from Jon Dorenbos, he's the longest-tenured Eagle. His receiving numbers continued to decline last year – as did his playing time – but Celek remains a vital blocking component to Kelly's offense. He's a Kelly favorite, but if Ertz' blocking improves it will be difficult to keep him off the field. He already should have been playing more than 50 percent, but if he gets as many opportunities as other top tight ends, Ertz could end up leading the Eagles in receiving.
Burton's contributions mostly came on special teams, but he has enough ability to help out on offense in his sophomore season. He could fill Casey's occasional role as a second run-blocking tight end or he could also chip into Celek's snaps on passing downs. There's untapped potential there.
Projected lineup: Brent Celek, Zach Ertz, Trey Burton.
The Eagles kept only three running backs last season, which allowed them four tight ends. It's too early to say for certain, but I could see Kelly opting to save four running backs after the DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews acquisitions. But another year of four tight ends isn't out of the question if one of the undrafted rookies shines during camp and the preseason.