Reasons to trust Chip Kelly with Eagles' wide receivers
Will Chip Kelly's decisions put team in position to win?
IT ISN'T EVERY day a writer gets to talk about Ahmad Rashad as a segue into a relevant topic, so forgive me if I ask that we all don our favorite hoop earring, cue up a classic edition of "Jam Session," and try to guess the last University of Oregon wide receiver selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
Hint: It's Ahmad Rashad.
This was 1972, before Rashad married Claire Huxtable, before he hosted "NBA Inside Stuff," heck, before his name was Ahmad Rashad (it was Bobby Moore). Since then, it's been a mostly inglorious history for Ducks at the skill positions, particularly at wide receiver, where last year the Eagles made Josh Huff the third-highest receiver drafted in school history at No. 86 overall. More pertinent to our little exercise here, Huff is the only draft pick at the position whom Chip Kelly coached in his seven years at the helm of the Oregon offense. And it's worth mentioning that Kelly himself drafted him.
This might all seem like little more than a convenient excuse to talk about Rashad until you look at the Eagles' depth chart at wide receiver and realize that the position is going to be another one of the those T.I.C. situations. That's Trust in Chip, just as you were asked to do after he signed Mark Sanchez, and after he cut DeSean Jackson, and after he kept Riley Cooper, and after pretty much everything he did this offseason. At the moment, the Eagles are rather light on established pass-catchers, with their top-four projected receivers having combined for fewer yards last season than the projected receiving corps of all but seven teams (and we're counting Zach Ertz as a receiver). Trailing them are the Jaguars, 49ers, Texans, Rams, Saints, Raiders and Ravens, only one of which made the playoffs in 2014.
None of this means anything, of course. The Eagles would have been on this list last season, as Cooper's 2013 led the way among projected starters at 47 catches and 835 yards, although Jeremy Maclin did have three straight 850-plus-yard seasons, including a 70-964-10 performance in 2010, before missing 2013 with a torn ACL. It's probably inaccurate to say that the current crop is a reflection of the value Kelly puts on the position, given his attempt to re-sign Maclin before the Chiefs gave him franchise-type dollars. Still, the loss of Maclin and Jackson in successive offseasons is unprecedented, regardless of the circumstances. In the 10 years before the Eagles released Jackson, only twice had a wide receiver gained at least 1,300 yards for a team and then failed to return the next season: Muhsin Muhammad in 2004 and Wes Welker in 2012. That's out of 57 1,300-yard seasons. The Eagles are one of only eight teams that will enter 2015 without a receiver who eclipsed 900 yards last season, joining the Browns, Jaguars, Titans, Raiders, Chargers, Vikings, Cardinals and Rams.
You do not need to apologize if that kind of thing makes you a wee bit nervous. If there is one thing Eagles fans know, it is mediocre receiving corps. It will take a lot more than a couple of big offensive numbers to wipe away the memories of Torrance Small, James Thrash, Todd Pinkston, and the Browns (Reggie and Na). Of the 13 highest single-season yardage totals posted by wide receivers since Andy Reid's first year as head coach, Jackson or Maclin owns nine of them.
Of all of the trust-me moves Kelly has made during his time here, his stocking of the wide receiver position is the one that makes you most understand the people who accuse this town of having gone loopy with its blind faith in the guy. Really, the only way to rationalize it is to look at the coach's history and believe that he knows what he's doing. At Oregon, his offense never required top-end talent. Marcus Mariota is the only skill position player Kelly recruited at Oregon who went on to become a first-round pick. The only other ones drafted besides Huff were a couple of tight ends (Ed Dickson in the third round in 2010 and David Paulson in the seventh round in 2012) and a trio of running backs (LaMichael James in the second round in 2012, Kenjon Barner in the sixth round in 2013, De'Anthony Thomas in the fourth round in 2014).
Remember, many of us had similar trepidations last year when Kelly entered the season with Maclin as his No. 1 target. Maybe Nelson Agholor can be that player. Agholor is listed at 6-foot, 198 pounds, Maclin is listed at 6-foot, 198 pounds. In his final year at Missouri, Maclin caught 102 passes for 1,260 yards and 13 touchdowns. Agholor last season at USC? 104 passes, 1,313 yards, 12 touchdowns. Maclin was drafted No. 19 overall in 2009, Agholor was drafted No. 20 overall in 2015. Maclin made an immediate impact with the Eagles, catching 56 passes for 773 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie, numbers that remained relatively constant until he exploded in Kelly's scheme.
You also need to factor in the addition of DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews, not only because they are threats out of the backfield, but also because they might allow Darren Sproles to occupy the kind of role he filled for the Saints from 2011-13, when he caught at least 70-plus passes for 600-plus yards in three straight seasons. With some improvement out of Ertz and Jordan Matthews - certainly a rational expectation - the Eagles could easily bolster a more dynamic set of pass-catchers than they had a year ago. That's a lot of ifs in which to believe, but what's your other choice? Ahmad Rashad ain't walkin' through that door.
On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy