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After strong rookie season, Jordan Matthews is ready to lead receivers

With Jeremy Maclin's departure, Eagles receivers like Matthews will need to step up.

Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews. (Ed Hille/Staff Photographer)
Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews. (Ed Hille/Staff Photographer)Read more

JORDAN MATTHEWS was ticked. He had run the sideline pass route cleanly, but the ball arrived a little late and a little high, and by the time he jumped and extended all of his 6-3 frame to haul it in, a defensive back was upon him and there was no room to run.

And thus, no first down. So, as Matthews ran from the field, the sound of his frustration carried out across the practice fields of the NovaCare Complex.

Carried, literally, into the streets.

"That's nothing," he said after the second day of minicamp had come to an end. "That's just competing. I mean, I wanted the first down. I didn't get the first down. I'm upset with myself. Not the defense. Not anyone else. Myself. That's what that was."

There was a significant level of blind faith required of Eagles fans last spring, after DeSean Jackson was cut and the success of the Eagles' passing attack depended upon a wideout recovering from a knee injury that had cost him an entire season, a second-year tight end, and contributions from two rookie receivers, Matthews and Josh Huff.

The Eagles traded up 12 spots to select Matthews in the second round of the 2014 draft. Huff came a round later. Hurt early, Huff struggled in his first season and finished with just eight catches and four excruciatingly ill-timed drops. Matthews, playing as a slot receiver, flourished, becoming just the 13th rookie wide receiver in NFL history with at least 65 receptions, 800 receiving yards and eight touchdown catches.

Even more is needed this season with the departure of Maclin. Will Huff and that speed of his get untracked? Will Riley Cooper rebound to become an effective weapon again? What's the ceiling on Zach Ertz?

Above all, can Matthews and Nelson Agholor combine to fill Maclin's void?

"I know we're going to miss Maclin," Matthews said. "Great player. Great leader. Great mentor to me. But at the same time it is what it is and you have to go with the guys you have and try to make the most of it.''

Agholor already has wowed observers this spring with his quickness and hands. He's also impressed with his approach and attitude, reminiscent of Matthews a year ago.

"I wanted to play bad for this team that first year," Matthews said. "So I did whatever it took to learn it. So I found little idiosyncrasies in the offense. Little cues. Little hooks. And I continued to memorize those things to help me memorize the offense better."

A distant cousin of Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, Matthews has spent much of the time between his first and second seasons working on technique. He sought out Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter in February. He's been in and out here at Camp Kelly.

Because he played almost exclusively as a slot receiver, Matthews was on the field for just a little more than half of the Eagles' plays (65 percent) in 2014. With Maclin's departure, he is expected to play on the outside more this season, but he also knows how it works: Those opportunities will be based on what he shows this spring and summer, and how it compares to Agholor's performance on the outside.

So I asked him: Is he more comfortable out there than a year ago? Is he now a go-to guy for advice from the likes of Agholor the way Maclin was for him a year ago?

"I don't like to use the word comfortable," he said. "The moment you use the word comfortable, that's when you trip up. So to be honest: yeah, of course there's a teaching part where you now know the offense and the system so you can help guys out in that aspect. But I don't want to make it look like, yeah, I'm telling you what to do, or you're an apprentice. We're all friends, we're all homeys. All of us are pretty much the same age. That's the way I look at it.

"At the end of the day you just got to keep letting them know that it's just football. You're not doing anything different than what you did in college. . . . When you try to make the game bigger than that, that's when it gets way too complicated. Just beat the man across from you and catch the football. And [Agholor] is already really good at doing that. I mean, I can't teach that speed of his."

What he can teach are those little cues, those little hooks, that are often the difference between a yard short and a first down. Milking every play for everything you can get out of it, leaving nothing on the table.

It's why that scream could be heard across the street yesterday. And why Kelly's offense may again survive the loss of its top receiver.

On Twitter: @samdonnellon