BRANDON GIBSON and Jason Avant are almost exactly the same size - the Eagles list Avant at 6-feet, 212, Gibson the same height, 2 pounds lighter. They both seem to catch everything thrown near them. But they really aren't the same guy, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg explained yesterday.
"Jason has such a great feel inside. Gibson might be able to acquire those type of skills," Mornhinweg said following yesterday's OTA session at NovaCare. "However, I think he's doing an excellent job on the outside right now. We may be able to use them in some of the same specialty roles, because of their size and strength."
Gibson, the sixth-round rookie wideout from Washington State, and Avant, the fourth-year wideout from Michigan, illustrate an underexamined facet of the 2009 Birds. The Eagles will head to training camp next month at Lehigh probably without franchise running back Brian Westbrook, recovering from last week's ankle surgery, but with a really deep group of wide receivers.
"It's the deepest [group], certainly" since Mornhinweg's arrival in 2003, the coordinator said. "All of 'em are highly skilled . . . The good thing is, many of their strengths are different from each other, so we can utilize their strengths in different ways, depending on who's on the field.
"We've got four guys that are really big, strong guys. We can use 'em inside, chipping and then getting into a route. We can use them in motion and get into a chip. We can bring them from a tight end spot and do some things. Then we've got other guys, their strengths may be their quickness and speed. It's a heckuva group."
The "big, strong guys" would include Hank Baskett (6-4, 220) and Shaheer McBride (6-2, 205), along with Avant and Gibson. The "speed" guys include DeSean Jackson, first-round rookie Jeremy Maclin, a seemingly rejuvenated Reggie Brown (yeah, of course you're skeptical, just sayin'), and Kevin Curtis, once he recovers fully from his second sports-hernia surgery.
This could get disorienting for Eagles fans accustomed to bemoaning the state of the receiving corps. They don't have Greg Lewis to kick around anymore.There's still the matter of whether it would have been better for this year's Super Bowl chances to go out and try to get, say, Anquan Boldin, instead of drafting Maclin, but otherwise, there seems little to fault here, at long last.
"We've had excellent skill in the past,'' Mornhinweg said, bridling against a questioner's suggestion that just maybe that had not always been the case. "I just don't think we've been quite as deep. We're young, and we've got quite a bit of skill and ability there, yeah."
Whether it means anything in the long run or not, Brown has been a standout in these workouts, sure-handed, smooth and quick.
"There's no question that he's back," Mornhinweg said of Brown, now 2 years removed from his days as an up-and-comer. "He was hurt virtually all year last year; he was nicked up several different times. So he's back to where he was that second year that he played for us," when Brown's average catch accounted for 17.7 yards and he caught eight touchdowns.
It's going to be hard for Brown to re-create the opportunity he had 2 years ago, though, when he and Curtis were the most polished members of an undistinguished, middle-of-the-road bunch. Baskett and Avant, bit players back then, have worked hard to improve; NFL.com's Pat Kirwan recently included Avant in a group of receivers he feels can break through into the 60-to-80-catch range. Jackson arrived in the second round last year and set rookie wideout records, with 62 catches for 915 yards. Maclin, taken 19th overall, is the Eagles' highest skill-position draftee since Donovan McNabb, and early indications are that he will not spend the season watching and learning.
"Yes, it's weird," to be unsure whether he will make the team, let alone start, Brown said yesterday. He thought he had played his last game as an Eagle when he was left inactive for the NFC Championship Game. "But I understand my position right now. I understand what I have to do to get back to maybe having a chance of being a starter. Going to keep working here, come out here and try to be as consistent as I can."
Avant said he isn't fretting about Maclin, Gibson, or even a healthier Brown taking away from his chances of expanding his niche.
"I'm a guy that likes to win," he said. "Whatever it takes for us to win, I'm for . . . I'm glad to be on the team, I'm honored to play with some guys of that caliber."
Mornhinweg mentioned that knack for working inside, which Avant has developed, making him a go-to guy on third down. How did he manage it?
"You've got to know defenses, know coverages, know timing of coverage. You've got to watch film to be good at it," Avant said. "And you've got to be able to absorb a blow."
Gibson, like so many late-round and undrafted guys, has a story. He was projected as a middle-rounder in 2008, but elected to return to Washington State for his senior season, under a new coaching staff. The Cougars went 2-11, using five quarterbacks. Gibson acknowledges his play dropped off, as everything around him crumbled. The Eagles feel they got real value with the 194th overall pick.
"There's nothing I can do about it," Gibson said yesterday. "I'm just excited to be here and to be a Philadelphia Eagle . . . I think we're very, very polished as a [wideout] group."
Gibson has heard the talk about how he looks like Avant on the field, but he doesn't make much of it. "I look up to [Avant] a lot. It's very impressive to be compared to him, but I have a long way to go," he said.
Curtis, who turns 31 next month, suddenly is the graybeard of the group. He knows that he is not guaranteed as prominent a role as he enjoyed when he signed as a free agent 2 years ago, penciled in right away as the No. 1 wideout. Curtis is a partial workout participant right now while recovering from his latest surgery.
"I feel really good at the start of practice," he said, but the injured area becomes fatigued. Though he can't go full speed yet, he feels that will happen before late July.
"My [goal] is not only being 100 percent in training camp, but I plan on being in great shape," Curtis said. *
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