THERE ARE a lot of things that are tough to judge from practice. Here's one that isn't: Jordan Matthews and Sam Bradford have developed some serious chemistry over the first week-and-a-half of Eagles training camp, and everybody at the NovaCare Complex will testify.
Nolan Carroll: "He's hungry, man."
Byron Maxwell: "He definitely looks like he's gotten bigger."
Bradford: "I think that guy catches more footballs than anybody I've ever seen."
If you can purchase stock in Matthews, the Eagles' second-year receiver, do it before the start of the regular season. It has the potential to be a big one.
Granted, we've heard that about virtually every receiver who's had an opportunity to play in Chip Kelly's light-em-up offense. In DeSean Jackson's one year in the offense, he caught 82 balls for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns. In Jeremy Maclin's one year, he caught 85 passes for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Even before training camp began, the conventional wisdom said it was Matthews' turn. With Maclin having departed via free agency in the offseason, those catches have to go somewhere. But this is different from connecting the dots. The Matthews we've seen thus far this summer is a far different player than Maclin or Jackson ever were. He is bigger, stronger, more aggressive. Put a star next to that last trait. It might prove to be the most significant.
Case in point: In the final 11-on-11 in yesterday's practice, Matthews lined up in the slot and ran what Bradford referred to as a "big box fade" route, designed to get the receiver isolated on a defensive back with room to work over top. He essentially runs 10 yards straight down the seam then starts to widen out - like a longer version of the jump-ball route you see on the goal line. The play did what it was supposed to do, matching up Matthews on Jaylen Watkins about 25 yards downfield moving in the direction of the corner of the end zone to Bradford's right. The quarterback threw a beautiful rainbow to where only his receiver could get it, and Matthews got it, going up over Watkins for a leaping/sprawling grab and coming down with it in the end zone.
"I think that's one of the things you kind of want to go through in camp, put those guys in those situations, throw balls up, let them make plays," Bradford said. "Obviously, Jordan's come down with his fair share of those. I think it's a credit to the way he works. I think that guy catches more footballs than anybody I've ever seen. His hands are really strong. It's something he's always working on. I think it's something that's really showed up out here this first week."
Matthews, who caught 67 balls for 872 yards and eight TDs as a rookie, has made a play like that every day. While he doesn't lack for measurables - he is 6-3 and ran a 4.46 40-yard dash and had a higher vertical leap than Sammy Watkins at the 2014 draft combine - he also does not have a single tool that grades out as elite. "Explosiveness" might be the proper catch-all for the physical trait scouts thought he lacked. But it is also the kind of physical trait a player can offset with a psychological one: relentlessness. And that, more than anything, is what Matthews has shown thus far in camp.
"You can just tell that he's going 100 miles an hour," said Carroll, a cornerback. "We saw a little bit last year. This year, it's a dramatic change. You can really see him attacking the ball. When he goes up, you know he wants it. He's not just letting it come to him."
The little bit we saw last year came in you-throw-it-I'll-catch-it situations like third down and the red zone. Matthews was targeted 15 times in the red zone last season, with six of his 10 catches going for touchdowns and another one going for a first down. For comparison's sake, Maclin was targeted 12 times, with three touchdowns and two first downs.
On third down, Matthews was targeted 39 times for 24 catches, 18 for first downs.
Maclin was targeted only 27 times on third down, with 16 catches and 13 first downs.
"Man, he's got great range," Bradford said. "A guy that big typically doesn't play in the slot, and the fact that we use him in the slot I think is really advantageous to us. It makes it really easy on the quarterback to have a tight end and Jordan running down the seams or the middle of the field. They're big bodies, long targets that you can throw to. He's made some catches this past week that have been pretty impressive."
That's a direct result of the offseason he spent training with players such as Colin Kaepernick and Victor Cruz in Arizona. Matthews said he spent a lot of time refining skills that will help him maximize the space he creates for himself between defender and football.
"God made me 6-foot-3 for a reason," he said.
You can't tell a lot in camp, but you can tell rapport. Bradford and Matthews have it. Asked whether something like that can result in more balls thrown a wide receiver's way, Bradford was definitive.
"Absolutely," he said.
Look out for No. 81.