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Josh Huff out to show he can do more for Eagles

Josh Huff caught the pass in stride 20 yards downfield on a crossing route. With the ball in his hands, he burst ahead looking for a defender to plow over. But each defensive back peeled off and Huff jogged back to the sideline unable to unleash his fury.

Eagles wide receiver Josh Huff. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Eagles wide receiver Josh Huff. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)Read more

Josh Huff caught the pass in stride 20 yards downfield on a crossing route. With the ball in his hands, he burst ahead looking for a defender to plow over. But each defensive back peeled off and Huff jogged back to the sideline unable to unleash his fury.

In minicamp, practices are no more than touch football and physical wide receivers such as Huff don't get opportunities to display their wares. But the Eagles don't have to worry about Huff with the ball in his hands. It's making sure it gets there and stays.

On Wednesday, Huff bobbled and dropped a short, accurate throw from quarterback Mark Sanchez. It was a reminder of last season, when the rookie had passes carom off his hands or he failed to secure the ball once he had possession.

But Huff has also flashed signs of progress this spring, as he did on that 20-yard catch. And the glimpses, however brief, have come in areas in which he needs to improve the most - running crisp routes and catching the ball downfield.

The consistency part remains elusive, though.

"It's mental plays here and there, especially when I get tired, or I fall behind on a play, or I don't get back in time and I don't see the play," Huff said on Thursday, the last day of minicamp.

Huff can't afford to have lapses as he enters his second season - at least if he wants to compete for a starting role or one in which he sees significant time on offense. He had first-year justification for his mistakes last season, along with a shoulder injury that kept him out of the first four games.

With a full, mostly healthy offseason, there should be no reason the 2014 third-round draft pick can't compete for more playing time. Jeremy Maclin left via free agency and Riley Cooper is one year closer to the end of his contract. But it's not as though the Eagles left the cupboard bare at receiver.

Jordan Matthews is back for his second season after a more-than-promising rookie year. Veteran Miles Austin was added late in free agency. And the biggest threat to Huff's campaign for increased playing time is this year's top draft pick, Nelson Agholor.

To put it simply, Agholor already looks more NFL-advanced than Huff.

"I'm a competitor, but I don't really pay attention to that," Huff said. "They brought him in because he does things really well, and I do things really well, Jordan [does] things really well, Coop [does] things really well. Whatever can help our team get over that hump, then I'm all for it. But I'm going to do everything I can to better my technique."

Huff said that he has immersed himself in the playbook to better understand when he needs to come in and out of the breaks on his routes. He has become a devotee of working with the JUGS passing machine after practice - something Matthews did perhaps more than other receiver last season.

"I've seen the type of the success Jordan had last year and I want that success," Huff said.

But they're different receivers. Matthews is rangy (6-foot-3, 212 pounds) and runs like a gazelle, while Huff is stocky (5-11, 206) and moves like a pit bull. One is also a more naturally gifted receiver.

"I just [want to] be more natural, more fluid, and be confident and comfortable with the way I catch the ball," Huff said. "Not have so many thoughts going through my mind on how I should catch a ball and just catch it naturally."

Huff did most of his work during the spring with the first-team offense in Maclin's old outside spot. Chip Kelly's receivers are interchangeable, so they may be lined up in the slot as often as they are outside. But the Eagles are giving Huff opportunities to play where he may ultimately not be best suited.

"I think he's made great progress," Kelly said. "The biggest thing with Josh is just consistency. I think it is for most guys. When you come in as a first-year player, he was obviously set back a little bit because of his injury, and then missing the first portion of the season, but then just flashed at times."

It's still early to say, but Huff eventually may be just a situational receiver and special-teams contributor. Which is fine for a third-rounder, although the Eagles passed on several receivers who were drafted later and are already starters. But the moments when he did excel last season - a 107-yard kick return for a touchdown against the Titans and a 44-yard catch-and-run against the Cowboys - suggested he could be more than just a role player.

To get there, though, he has to eliminate unforced mistakes like fumbling just short of the goal line against the Cardinals or having a pass deflect off his hands and into those of a Texans defender a week later.

"It was my rookie year. It was a long process. It was draining," Huff said. "Mentally, I felt I checked out last year in a certain part of the season, and that's basically the rookie wall. But this year, I'm more confident."

He may have to wait until the pads are on and the opponent is another team before he can show how confident.