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Nelson Agholor has gone from disappointment to difference-maker

Since being moved to the slot, he has blossomed for the 12-2 Eagles, catching eight touchdown passes and ranking among the league leaders in third-down receptions.

Eagles wide receiver Nelson Agholor catches the football against New York Giants free safety Darian Thompson on Sunday, December 17, 2017.
Eagles wide receiver Nelson Agholor catches the football against New York Giants free safety Darian Thompson on Sunday, December 17, 2017.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Nelson Agholor dropped a pass Sunday. A very catchable one on what was a fairly important play in the fourth quarter of a close game.

A year ago, that drop would've been big news because: a) it would've been the continuation of a season-long pattern of dropped passes by Agholor; b) he probably wouldn't have done anything else productive in the game to have offset the drop; and c) the Eagles probably would've lost the game.

But that was then and this is now, and Agholor no longer is a first-round disappointment who played so poorly last season that he got benched for a game.

On the very next play after that drop, quarterback Nick Foles went back to Agholor, who ran a 10-yard hook route against Giants cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

The throw was low and not nearly as easy a catch as the one on the previous play, but Agholor gobbled it up, giving the Eagles a first down at midfield. Seven plays later, he caught a 16-yard pass from Foles that set up Jake Elliott's gimme 20-yard field goal, which extended the Eagles' lead to five points.

Happy and having fun

Agholor finished the game with seven catches for 59 yards and a touchdown. Four of those receptions resulted in first downs.

The drop? Just his fourth of the season on 59 catchable throws. Quickly forgotten.

"I'm happy and I'm having fun,'' Agholor said. "We just have to keep playing well and working hard and I have to try to make more plays.''

Just about every personnel move the Eagles have made the last nine months has left them smelling like a rose. That includes their August decision to trade productive slot receiver Jordan Matthews, who had 225 receptions and 19 touchdown catches the previous three years, and move Agholor, who had 59 catches and three touchdowns in his first two years with the Eagles, inside.

Here's what Agholor has done this season in the slot:

— He has 55 catches for 722 yards and eight TDs. The only Eagle with more touchdown catches is Alshon Jeffery, who has nine.

— In the last three games, he has 22 catches for 264 yards, two touchdowns and 13 receiving first downs.

— He's tied for 14th in the NFL in third-down catches with 20.

— He's third on the team in receiving first downs with 33, behind only Jeffery (45) and tight end Zach Ertz (42).

— He has a team-high 13 red-zone receptions, including four for touchdowns, which trails only Ertz (8) and Jeffery (7).

— He has a team-high nine catches of 20 yards or more, including three of 40-plus yards.

A different player

"If you just looked at the snapshot from last year to this year, you might think it's a surprise [that Agholor is playing so well],'' Ertz said. "But the offseason that he had, the way he matured in the offseason …  he came in a different player this year.

"He was dominant in OTA's. Everyone could tell there was something different. He had a lot of confidence. [Wide receivers coach] Mike Groh has been huge for him as far as helping him elevate his game, elevate his confidence.

"I mean, he has all the physical tools you can ever want. It was just a matter of putting it all together.''

Let's backpedal to ground zero — last year's 26-15 Week 11 loss to Seattle in which Agholor had no catches, dropped a critical pass in the red zone, was flagged for an inexcusable illegal formation penalty that negated an Eagles touchdown, and then admitted after the game that he had to "get out of my own head.''

He was benched by coach Doug Pederson the following week and had just nine catches in the final five games.

In March, the Eagles signed free agent wide receivers Jeffery and Torrey Smith. Agholor was the odd man out.

Then, knee soreness sidelined Matthews for most of the spring OTAs and minicamps, and Agholor was moved inside, and it was off to the races.

"After we added Torrey and Alshon, there was a point there where he wasn't a starter,'' safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "I think that took some of the pressure off of him. I know he came back a lot more confident, a lot more ready to go.

"He had a different mind-set last spring. It was noticeable early on. I think moving him to the slot better suited his skill set, and all of a sudden, he started making more plays. Every play he made he gained more confidence. By the time he got to training camp, I knew he was going to have a solid year.''

Finding a home in the slot

Agholor played both inside and outside in college at USC. He played outside his first two years with the Eagles.

"I keep on getting better in there [in the slot], and I keep on getting better all around as a receiver,'' Agholor said. "At the end of the day, you just want to make yourself the best weapon you can be to help your team win football games.''

He has used Jeffery and Smith, who have 13 combined years of NFL experience, to help him become the best that he can be.

"I really enjoy playing alongside them,'' Agholor said. "Their experience and knowledge that they pass on to me makes me a better player. And the fact that they're so gifted, it raises my game. I'm appreciative of that.''

Smith has been impressed by the way Agholor emerged from the darkness of last season to become a difference-maker for a 12-2 team.

"I kind of saw what was going on with him from afar last year,'' Smith said. "Being here during the offseason, no one works harder than he does. No one prepares the way he does.

"And honestly, there's probably no one on this team who is as gifted as he is.''

Figuring the Eagles

— The Eagles have run 957 plays in their first 14 games. Six hundred fifty-five of them, or 68.4 percent, have been run out of the shotgun. But their 434 running plays have been more evenly split, with 211 out of shotgun and 223 from under center. They are averaging 5.2 yards per carry out of the shotgun and just 3.9 from under center.

— LeGarrette Blount is the only Eagles running back with more carries from under center than out of the shotgun. One hundred thirteen of his 157 rushing attempts, or 72 percent, have been from under center. He's averaging 5.2 yards per carry from under center and just 2.8 out of the shotgun. In the last four games, however, even his carries have been more evenly split, with 16 out of the shotgun and 21 from under center. In the six games Jay Ajayi has been with the Eagles, 36 of his 56 carries have been out of the shotgun.

— The Eagles have three receivers with at least eight touchdown catches. Jeffery has nine, and Ertz and Agholor each have eight. No other team in the league has more than one player with eight or more TD receptions. Nineteen teams don't have any.

— Eight Eagles receivers have caught touchdown passes in the red zone, including five with two or more: Ertz (8), Jeffery (7), Agholor (4), Trey Burton (3) and Corey Clement (2).

— The Giants converted 10 of 18 third-down opportunities against the Eagles on Sunday. That's the first time this season an opponent has converted more than six third downs against the Eagles.

— The Eagles averaged 7.0 yards per play on second down against the Giants. That was the second highest second-down average this season. They averaged 7.9 against the Cowboys. Nick Foles had a 136.8 passer rating on second down Sunday, completing 77.7 percent of his attempts (7 of 9) and throwing three TD passes.

— All four of Foles' touchdown passes against the Giants came on throws that traveled between 11 and 19 yards in the air. A breakdown of the throwing distance on Carson Wentz's 33 touchdown passes — 20-plus yards: 8; 11-19 yards: 12; 0-10 yards: 10; behind line of scrimmage: 3.