The Eagles' first-series touchdown drive in Thursday night's preseason opener showed two things: Why the team thought it could afford to deal Jordan Matthews, and why that trade with Buffalo is nonetheless a gamble for an organization trying to build a contender around Carson Wentz.
It was Matthews who kept the drive alive with a 7-yard catch on fourth-and-6 from Green Bay's 42, three plays before Wentz connected with Mack Hollins on what Hollins turned into a 38-yard touchdown ramble, the fourth-round rookie breaking from the middle of the field to the left sideline and delivering what Wentz later labeled "two pretty nasty stiffarms there to finish up the play."
Matthews caught three passes on the drive; he was the receiver Wentz was most comfortable with, the one Wentz looked for when he was dodging pass-rushers, as was frequently the case during the 10 snaps the QB played in Thursday's exhibition.
But that Hollins ramble represented the other part of the equation – the part that made de facto general manager Howie Roseman comfortable enough to trade away the sixth player in NFL history to catch at least 65 passes for at least 800 yards in each of his first three NFL seasons, since the Eagles drafted him in the second round from Vanderbilt in 2014. Roseman sent Matthews and the team's third-round pick in 2018 to Buffalo for cornerback Ronald Darby.
Matthews is big (6-foot-3, 212 pounds) and sturdy, an exemplary worker, popular with teammates, especially with Wentz, who tweeted to Matthews that he would "always be my boy, both on and off the field. Couldn't ask for a better teammate & friend."
"You worry about everything when you trade a professional like Jordan Matthews," Roseman told reporters Friday afternoon. "This isn't one where you're celebrating and doing a dance, because you're giving up a good player and a good pick. In this league, you're not going to be able to get anything unless you give something … it hurts when people you care about leave."
But Hollins (6-4, 221) also is big, and he looks pretty sturdy. And right now he ranks behind Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, perhaps behind even Nelson Agholor, Thursday's two-point conversion failure notwithstanding, on a receiving corps the Eagles clearly feel they have upgraded substantially.
Roseman touted Hollins on Friday as "tremendously consistent, a big kid with really good speed."
Intrigue bubbled beneath the surface with Matthews all spring and summer, as he approached the final year of his rookie deal. It became apparent that management wasn't disposed to give No. 1 receiver money, $10 million-plus a year, to a guy it didn't see as its No. 1 receiver going forward.
"Those things have a way of kind of sorting themselves out," Roseman said.
Matthews sat out most of the spring work with knee tendinitis that the organization didn't seem to think was all that serious. Then, last week, offensive coordinator Frank Reich talked about Matthews sharing the slot position with Agholor and perhaps rookie running back Donnel Pumphrey, as the coaching staff pursued matchups. This would definitely have limited Matthews' snaps. Praise for Matthews in this camp has been sparing.
As the preseason began, it seemed very possible Matthews would be leaving, and inevitable that the Eagles would seek a starting cornerback in return. When the trade happened, they had to throw in the third-rounder, because as Roseman noted, it's "a corner-deficient league," and prying away a starting-quality corner from anyone in August is a difficult feat.
Also, with Jeffery, among others, here on a one-year deal, Roseman stressed that he did not want to trade Matthews and get back someone with the same looming free agency problem. Darby, 23, was a second-round Buffalo pick in 2015, meaning he has two years left on his rookie deal.
Despite the risks involved – Jeffery and Smith came with questions, Agholor has been a mistake-ridden disappointment through two NFL seasons, Hollins is a rookie with one preseason game behind him – it's clear that the Eagles felt they had to add a solid starting-quality corner to be competitive in the NFC East this season. In the spring, it was easy to talk about second-round draftee Sidney Jones maybe being back from his Achilles' tear by midseason, or third-round draftee Rasul Douglas starting from Day 1, but as camp developed, it was apparent the corner position was in worse shape, right now, than a year ago, which was saying something.
"Our priority was sorting out the cornerback position," Roseman said.
The Bills, who visit the Linc on Thursday, probably wouldn't have traded Darby for anything after his rookie season, when he finished second in defensive rookie of the year balloting, but like several Buffalo teammates, he dropped off dramatically in 2016, as the Rex Ryan regime flamed out. A new coaching staff, headed by former Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, seems to be inaugurating a longterm rebuild. Given the Matthews contract situation, the third-round pick might have been more attractive to the Bills than the player they got, on the day they also parted with 2014 first-round pick Sammy Watkins, who struggled with injuries and hasn't lived up to the tradeup from ninth to fourth overall Buffalo made to draft him.
The third-round pick going to Buffalo with Matthews isn't insignificant, but the Eagles pretty much had to add a decent corner, partly because last year they traded Eric Rowe to New England, a year after drafting Rowe in the second round – three slots ahead of where Buffalo took Darby.
"There's a point in a trade when you think, 'If I don't do this, I'm gonna lose the player,' " Roseman said, when asked about including the pick in the deal.
Roseman also pointed out that the Eagles can still court Matthews as a free agent next spring, if Buffalo doesn't lock him up, which seemed pretty silly – if you don't want to pay big money now, why would you in free agency, for the exact same skillset? This was probably window dressing to lessen the fallout over trading a popular player, but maybe Roseman does have a distant scenario in mind in which nobody is willing to pay Matthews what the receiver thinks he is worth.
Roseman probably deserves credit for getting what would seem to be a decent corner at a time of year when that is next to impossible, but then there also is the fact that he bears much responsibility for the Eagles not having better corners in the first place. In fact, with this trade, the Eagles' 2014 draft joins 2011 and 2015 as major talent dead zones, unless you include Darby as a draft asset, assuming he comes in and plays well.
Given Darby's age, Roseman could reasonably sell this as a trade for the future, but the trade also reflects that the Eagles have aspirations in 2017, maybe bigger ones than they let on through much of the offseason.