Eagles may benefit from another strong wide receiver draft class
Head coach Chip Kelly may look to the draft if free agent Jeremy Maclin doesn't re-sign.
INDIANAPOLIS - Wide receivers typically, though certainly not always, enter the NFL on little cat feet, quietly learning the intricacies of playing the position in a league where just getting off the line of scrimmage often can be more difficult for a rookie than scaling Mount Everest.
That, of course, wasn't the case last year, when rookie wideouts took the NFL by storm. Fifteen were selected in the first three rounds of the draft. Nine of them caught at least 45 passes. Seven had five or more touchdown receptions. The five wide receivers taken in the first round averaged 50 receptions, 979 receiving yards and nine TDs.
Overall, 10 rookie wide receivers, including fourth-rounder Martavis Bryant (Pittsburgh) and undrafted Allen Hurns (Jacksonville), ended up with 40 or more receptions, the most in NFL history. Nine had five or more TD catches, also the most in league history. Eleven had 500-plus receiving yards. Yes, also a league record.
The Eagles were one of the many beneficiaries of last year's exceptional wide-receiver class, selecting two in the first three rounds - Jordan Matthews, taken in the second round with the 42nd overall pick, and Josh Huff, taken in the third round at No. 86.
Huff contributed more on special teams than on offense. But Matthews hit the ground running. Playing in the slot for Chip Kelly he had 67 receptions, the second most ever by an Eagles rookie. His eight touchdown catches were the fourth most by a rookie last season, behind only the Buccaneers' Mike Evans and the Giants' Odell Beckham Jr. (12) and the Panthers' Kelvin Benjamin (nine).
He was the Eagles' most productive red-zone threat. He led the team in third-down catches (25) and was second on the team to Jeremy Maclin in receiving first downs (42).
"Last year's wide-receiver group was historically tremendous," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "I think there are reasons in today's NFL why rookie wide receivers can come in and play well right away.
"No. 1, these kids are used to catching the football forever. Everything's a pass-first league now.
"No. 2, with the emphasis on the 5-yard rule, the smaller wideouts are getting off press coverage. They know after 5 yards, they can run routes with impunity.
"Lastly, the big-bodied wideouts like the Benjamins and the Evanses, they don't really have to be route-runners. They're 6-5, 230. With the advent of the back-shoulder throw, they can be productive from Day 1. So I think the league is set up for young wide receivers to be more productive right out of the gate than maybe in years past."
After spending two of their first three draft picks on wide receivers last spring, it's probably unlikely that the Eagles will go after one early in this year's draft, particularly given the pressing offseason needs they have on defense.
Then again, Maclin, who had a team-high 85 receptions and 10 TDs last season, is an unrestricted free agent. While Kelly has said he wants Maclin back, anything can happen if he still is unsigned when the free-agency signing period begins on March 10.
This much is clear: If the Eagles ultimately feel they do need to address the wide-receiver position in the draft, there will be plenty of intriguing choices.
Wide receiver once again is one of the deepest positions in the draft. NFL scouts and draft analysts think as many as five wideouts could go in the first round, which would equal last year's total. Somewhere from 12 to 15 could be selected in the first three rounds.
Forty-three wide receivers are among the 330-plus invitees to this week's predraft Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"It would be a stretch to suggest this wide-receiver group is as good as last year's because last year's was historically good," an NFC personnel executive said. "This group isn't a bad group. But it's probably a 'B' group to last year's 'A' group.
"There aren't a lot of guys who just knock your socks off like last year with [Sammy] Watkins, Evans, Beckham and Benjamin. But there are some very good players. There are particularly a lot of good slot guys in this draft."
Alabama's Amari Cooper, Louisville's DeVante Parker and West Virginia's Kevin White are considered the top three wideouts. Mayock said all three are consensus top-20 picks.
One of the most intriguing wideouts in the draft is 6-6, 225-pound Dorial Green-Beckham. Green-Beckham had 12 touchdown catches at Missouri in 2013, but was dismissed from the football team for an off-the-field incident in which he allegedly forced his way into his girlfriend's apartment and knocked a female roommate down the stairs. The woman declined to press charges.
Green-Beckham transferred to Oklahoma but was unable to play last year because of NCAA transfer rules. He declared for the draft last month.
"The year of inactivity is a concern," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said. "That, plus the off-the-field issues. But he has unbelievable talent. You saw that at Missouri. You saw that coming out of high school when he was the No. 1 [prep] player in the country. With his skill set and physical prowess, had he played at Oklahoma this year, he'd probably be a top-five-to-seven pick.
"Depending on the background checks and his interviews and his workouts, which should be spectacular, he's going to be in the first-round discussion."
The wide-receiver pack is muddled after Cooper, Parker and White. Things are expected to become much clearer after the combine workouts when scouts can put a 40 time and an accurate height and weight to what they've been watching on tape.
Players such as Ohio State's Devin Smith, Arizona State's Jaelen Strong, Auburn's Sammie Coates, Michigan's Devin Funchess, Stanford's Ty Montgomery, Central Arkansas' Dez Lewis, Kansas State's Tyler Lockett, Duke's Jamison Crowder, Miami's Phillip Dorsett and Central Florida's Breshad Perriman, who could go anywhere from late in the first round to somewhere in the third, can separate themselves from the competition with a solid combine workout.
Maclin's situation will dictate the Eagles' level of interest in a wide receiver in the draft. If he re-signs, the position could become a low draft priority for the Eagles since Matthews is coming off a terrific rookie season and Kelly still has very high hopes for Huff.
But if Maclin signs elsewhere, all of that could change. Kelly might look for a bigger outside receiver like the 6-4, 212-pound Strong or the 6-3, 215-pound Lewis or the 6-3, 214-pound Perriman.
Or, given the large number of receivers in this draft who could play inside, Kelly might consider moving Matthews outside, have Huff compete with Riley Cooper for the other outside receiver job and draft a slot receiver, like, say, the 6-1, 210-pound Montgomery, the 6-2, 200-pound Coates or one of the smaller slot guys - Lockett (5-9, 175), Crowder (5-8, 173) or Dorsett (5-10, 182).
"You had 15 rookie [wide receivers] that were impactful [last season]," Kiper said, "and you're going to have a load more this year. It's a very, very strong, very, very deep position."