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Eagles playbook: Better late than never for Nelson Agholor

No one's laughing anymore when Mike Quick says Nelson Agholor is one of the most talented wide receivers in the NFL.

Eagles wide receiver Nelson Agholor stiff arms Washington linebacker Zach Brown.
Eagles wide receiver Nelson Agholor stiff arms Washington linebacker Zach Brown.Read more(Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)

Mike Quick believed in Nelson Agholor when you could count the number of Nelson Agholor believers on two hands.

He believed in him last year when the kid was struggling so badly that Doug Pederson had to bench him for a game.

He believed in him this summer after Agholor was moved to the slot following the trade of Jordan Matthews.

He believed in him so much so that the five-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro went on the radio and said Agholor, who had a total of 59 catches and three touchdown receptions in his first two seasons, was the most talented wide receiver on the Eagles roster.

More than a few people emailed and/or texted Quick and suggested he submit to a breathalyzer test.

It took a while, but it appears the light has finally gone on for Agholor in this, his third NFL season. Through seven games, the 2015 first-round pick is tied with tight end Zach Ertz for the team lead in touchdown catches (5) and third-down receptions (11), is first in yards per catch (15.3) among the starters, second in receiving yards (366) and third in receptions (24).

Quick cited several reasons for Agholor's not-so-sudden success, including his move to the slot, the additions of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith and the hiring of a new wide receivers coach, Mike Groh.

But more than anything else, he thinks Nelson Agholor finally just got comfortable with being Nelson Agholor.

"I think just having success [helped],'' Quick said. "Nelson has spent some time just dealing with Nelson, trying to figure out Nelson, and I think it's helped him a lot.

"When he came back this year and started to catch the ball consistently [he found his confidence]. He's always been explosive. He's always been a guy with tremendous speed who can make people miss after he catches the ball.

"But I think the big difference, as far as what made the light go on for him, is when Nelson got comfortable with playing at this level. With him realizing that, 'Hey, I'm as good as anybody at this level.' I think he's comfortable with that now. He's a good football player.''

The weight of being a first-round pick and the expectations that go with it nearly crushed Agholor last season. He dropped six passes. He had just three receptions longer than 20 yards. He averaged just 10.1 yards per catch.

And he was unceremoniously benched in late November after a disastrous game in Seattle in which he had no catches, dropped a pass in the red zone and had a touchdown-costing illegal-formation penalty.

When the Eagles signed Jeffery and Smith in March, things changed. Agholor still was an underperforming first-round pick with three TD passes in two seasons. But the media circus moved on and left him alone to battle his demons.

"When they brought those two guys in, the main focus shifted to them,'' Quick said. "All of the attention was given to them. I think that really took the pressure off of Nelson in terms of being the leading man. Now he can be a man and not necessarily the leading man.

"I think that helped him get his confidence back that he played with at USC. [He said], 'The focus isn't on me now. I can just work.' ''

Agholor played both inside and outside at Southern Cal. He played strictly outside his first two seasons with the Eagles but was moved inside in the spring when Matthews sat out all of the OTA sessions with a knee injury.

Agholor played so well in the slot during OTAs that, when the Eagles had an opportunity to trade Matthews to the Buffalo Bills for cornerback Ronald Darby in mid-August, they didn't hesitate.

"I think [the move to the slot] has helped him,'' Quick said. "He can play inside or outside. He can play the [wide receiver] position, period. His talent, his skills are as good as the top people in the league. He can flourish inside or outside.

"I think one of the things about him playing the slot is he's learning a lot of football. Because when you go into the slot, you have to understand a lot more than when you play outside. There are a lot of things going on inside that you don't have to deal with outside.

"You don't have to deal with the linebackers and the safeties that play linebacker then come out and take you on the snap of the ball. And reading the inside guys. On the outside, you don't have to do that.

"So you're learning a lot more about the schemes of defense when you're in the slot.''

Figuring the Eagles

— Carson Wentz is one of just three quarterbacks with at least 15 red-zone pass attempts who hasn't thrown an interception or been sacked. Wentz has completed 20 of 31 red-zone attempts and thrown 12 red-zone TDs, which equals the number he threw all last season. He has the league's second-highest red-zone passer rating (116.3). The Saints' Drew Brees is first with a 116.8 rating.

— The Eagles have played 28 quarters this season. They've trailed at the end of just four of them – after the second, third and fourth quarters of their 27-20 Week 2 loss to the Chiefs and at the end of the first quarter Monday night when the Redskins held a 3-0 lead.

— The Eagles are 17th in average drive start through seven games (28.1). They finished sixth last year (30.3). They are 16th in opponent drive start (28.2). They were 12th last year (27.4). Fifteen of their 81 possessions have started at their 40-yard line of better. Twelve of their opponents' 77 drives have started at the 40 or better.

— The Eagles have outscored opponents in the first quarter, 44-9. Last year, they were outscored in the first quarter, 78-56. They've scored on their first possession in four of seven games and on their second possession twice. Their opponents have scored just three times (all field goals) on their first and second possessions. The Eagles are averaging 6.1 yards per play on their first possession and 3.6 on their second. Their opponents are averaging 3.6 on their first possession and 2.9 on their second.

— The Eagles have scored 46 points off 12 takeaways this season. Their opponents have scored 24 points off eight Eagles giveaways.

— Wentz, who leads the league in third-down passing with a 133.1 rating, also leads the league in third-and-long passing. He has a 125.9 passer rating on third-and-eight yards or more, including an 11.6 yards-per-attempt average and three TDs. His three third-and-long TD throws: the nine-yarder to running back Corey Clement on third-and-goal Monday night against Washington, a 72-yarder to Agholor on third-and-19 against Arizona and a 58-yard third-and-12 throw to Agholor in their Week 1 win over the Redskins.

— The Eagles are first in third-down efficiency. They have converted 50.5 percent of their third downs. They've converted 39.5 percent of their third downs of eight yards or more (17 of 43). Only the Redskins have a better third-and-long success rate (42.5).

— Six of the Eagles' 20 touchdown drives have been four plays or fewer. Four others have been 10 plays or more, including an 18-play, 80-yard, 9½-minute drive against the Giants.

Going deep

Wentz's deep-ball success with his receivers continues to improve. In the Eagles' last three games, he has completed 7 of 13 attempts of 20 yards or more for 319 yards and three touchdowns.

He was 5 for 22 for 207 yards and one TD on throws of 20-plus yards in the first four games.

Last year as a rookie, Wentz completed 21 of 67 passes of 20-plus yards for 650 yards, six TDs and seven interceptions.

"It's kind of like anything,'' said rookie wide receiver Mack Hollins, who caught a 64-yard touchdown pass from Wentz in Monday night's win over the Redskins. "The more experience you have with somebody and the more comfortable you get with them, the easier it is.

"The longer you play with Carson and see where he throws it, and the longer he knows us and knows our stride – mine as opposed to Alshon's or Torrey [Smith] or Marcus [Johnson] or Nelson [Agholor] – just knowing where to put certain balls, the easier it gets for all of us.''

This and that

— LeGarrette Blount had 14 carries against the Redskins on Monday night. Just one of them was out of the shotgun formation (a seven-yard loss). In the Eagles' first seven games, 63 of Blount's 84 rushing attempts have been with Wentz under center. He's averaging 5.9 yards per carry on runs from under center and just 2.3 on runs out of the shotgun. By comparison, just seven of Wendell Smallwood's 37 rushing attempts this season have been from under center, with the other 30 out of the shotgun. Smallwood is averaging 4.3 yards per carry out of the shotgun and only 1.4 on under-center plays. "We mix our runs up,'' offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "But certainly, LeGarrette has been successful in the 'home' position [in under-center plays]. But I've actually been pretty impressed with how he's adapted to running in the gun. Maybe the production isn't the same. But I think the way we coach it up front, I think our backs believe in it. And I think LeGarrette has come to believe in what we do in the run game. So, whether or not he would prefer being in the odd position [under center], I don't know. I just know he believes in what we're doing, and he's all in on that. And I think it's showed in his attitude and the way he's running.''

— It will be interesting to see how often Jim Schwartz blitzes 49ers' rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard on Sunday. The Eagles faced just one rookie quarterback last year – the Cowboys' Dak Prescott. Schwartz sent extra rushers after Prescott on 12 of 42 pass plays (28.6%) in a 29-23 Week 8 loss. That was higher than their 21.2 blitz average last season. Prescott was 5 for 12 for 81 yards, with no TDs, interceptions or sacks when the Eagles blitzed. Prescott played just 15 snaps in the second meeting between the teams in Week 17.

— Rookie running back Donnell Pumphrey, who is on injured reserve with a hamstring injury, said this week that his leg has completely healed. Teams are allowed to bring no more than two players back from IR after the eighth week of the season. But the Eagles probably won't do that with Pumphrey unless there is an injury to one of the four running backs on their roster – Blount, Smallwood, Corey Clement and Kenjon Barner. Barner was signed after Darren Sproles got hurt. He has only 12 carries but has done an excellent job returning punts. He is second in the league in punt return average (16.3). "Kenjon came in and is doing his thing,'' said Pumphrey, a fourth-round pick who broke the NCAA career rushing record at San Diego State. "He's playing well. I'm here to support the guys. That's all I can do at this point.''

— Another rookie, Derek Barnett, who got a piece of his first NFL sack two weeks ago against Carolina, had two sacks Monday night against Washington. According to Pro Football Focus, Barnett has 20 total pressures (sacks, hits, hurries), which is second among the team's four rotating defensive ends to Brandon Graham, who has 31. That is even though Barnett has played the fewest pass-rushing snaps of the four (147). Graham has played 229 pass-rushing snaps. Chris Long, who has 19 total pressures, has played 150. Vinny Curry, who has played the second-most pass-rushing snaps of the four (162), has the fewest total pressures through seven games (17). "Derek has been around the quarterback a lot,'' defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "And he's been a constant presence. I mean, he beat [Redskins tight end] Jordan Reed for a sack. But I don't want to give any gold stars for beating pass-receiving tight ends in pass rush. That being said, we're all very pleased with where Derek is, and we're happy with the path he's on.''

From the lip

— "The hypocrisy is just so overwhelming. They say because we have the Giants and the Jets and the Devils that somehow we shouldn't be allowed to have gambling here because somehow it will threaten the integrity of the game. Are you kidding? How isn't it threatening the integrity of the game in Las Vegas (having) the NFL and the NHL?'' – New Jersey governor Chris Christie

— "It's not right now because we're going to fight with everything we have with these nine games left, and hopefully we can turn our season around.'' – Giants GM Jerry Reese when asked whether it might be time to get a look at backup QB Davis Webb

— "We still can be historic. We still can be magical. [Bleep] hype. You know what I'm saying? We know who we are, and we know what we're about.'' – Ravens DL Terrell Suggs on a defense that is 18th in the league in yards allowed and 13th in points allowed

By the numbers

— Browns LT Joe Thomas had played 10,363 consecutive snaps before suffering a season-ending tricep injury last week.

— In his first 22 starts, Cowboys QB Dak Prescott already has seven games with both a rushing touchdown and a passing touchdown. That's as many as Troy Aikman had his entire career.

— Since 1990, 89.5 percent of teams (77 of 86) that started 6-1 or better made the playoffs. Twenty-seven of those 77 advanced to the Super Bowl. Fourteen won it.

– Paul Domowitch

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