For rookie wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, the college-to-pro transition has been about more than just learning how to get open and catch passes from Carson Wentz.
“Probably just becoming an adult,’’ Arcega-Whiteside said the other day when I asked him what has been his biggest rookie adjustment.
“You’re living in a strange city. You don’t know many people. You don’t really know what to do when you get free time other than sleep.
“You’re basically going back and forth from one place to the other, from your house to the [practice] facility. In college, you’re going from class to class. You meet friends on the way. You see teammates on the way [and say], ‘I’ll see you later.’ You come back [to your apartment] and you’re with roommates.
“Those are the kinds of things you learn and get adjusted to in the offseason. But as a rookie, you don’t really spend much time trying to figure out what you’re going to do with your free time. You’re trying to learn the playbook and find a role on the team.’’
For much of this season, Arcega-Whiteside’s role wasn’t very clear. They drafted the 6-2, 225-pounder in the second round in April. But the only spot they were at all comfortable playing him in was the “X’’ position on the outside, which happens to be where Alshon Jeffery plays.
He played 75 snaps in the Eagles’ Week 2 loss to the Falcons after Jeffery injured his calf, and 55 the following week, but he went back to the bench in Week 4 when Jeffery returned. He played just 44 offensive snaps over the next six games with no receptions.
Whenever the Eagles went to three-wide-receiver sets, Pederson and offensive coordinator Mike Groh opted to use Mack Hollins rather than Arcega-Whiteside, even though Hollins hasn’t caught a pass since Week 4.
Jeffery is having the worst season of his career. He’s averaging just 6.4 yards per target and 10.4 yards per catch, both career lows. He’s been noticeably slow, probably because of the calf injury.
After Jeffery injured his ankle in Week 9 against Chicago, the Eagles signed Jordan Matthews off the street rather than replace him with Arcega-Whiteside. Matthews played 62 snaps in the Eagles’ loss to the Patriots, catching one pass for 6 yards. Arcega-Whiteside played 19 snaps and had one catch for 29 yards.
Against the Seahawks last week, with both Jeffery and Nelson Agholor (knee) out, the rookie played 54 snaps and caught two passes for 43 yards, including a 30-yarder late in the fourth quarter that set up the Eagles’ only touchdown.
Matthews was released earlier this week after playing all but two snaps against the Seahawks.
On Wednesday, head coach Doug Pederson announced that Arcega-Whiteside is going to play a lot in the remaining five games. He said he was pleased with some of the things he saw from him against the Seahawks, but he also acknowledged that guys you take in the second round of the draft need to play.
“It’s where we are in our season and these guys obviously were drafted for a reason, and now we have to get them to play and play well,’’ Pederson said. Hardly a hearty endorsement, but at least he’s going to be on the field.
Where Arcega-Whiteside will play Sunday against 2-9 Miami and exactly how much will depend on the availability of Jeffery and Agholor, as well as tight end Zach Ertz.
The Eagles played 12-personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends, 2 wide receivers) on 50 of 71 plays last week. But Ertz is nursing a hamstring injury. If he can’t go Sunday, the Eagles, who have only two tight ends, will turn to 11-personnel (1RB, 1TE, 3WR).
If that ends up being the case, Pederson said, Arcega-Whiteside would split snaps with Hollins at the outside spot opposite Jeffery, with Agholor lining up in the slot.
Arcega-Whiteside said he can play all three wide receiver spots now.
“It doesn’t matter now what position I could be thrown into,’’ he said. “I should know what I’m doing and what my assignment is and how to do it.’’
It’s going to be an interesting offseason for the Eagles. With Ertz and Dallas Goedert, it’s pretty clear they want to play a ton of 12-personnel, which means using just two wide receivers most of the time.
Agholor will be a free agent and won’t be back. It’s unclear whether the Eagles are willing to play the can-he-stay-healthy game for another year with DeSean Jackson, who will turn 33 on Dec. 1.
Jeffery and Arcega-Whiteside are essentially the same player — not the fastest guys in the world, but good contested-catch receivers who can help you in the red zone. They don’t need both of them, and Arcega-Whiteside is younger and cheaper with a bigger potential upside.
The only problem is, the Eagles restructured Jeffery’s contract in early September, guaranteeing his entire 2020 base salary.
If they release him before June 1, they’ll take a huge $26 million salary cap hit. Trading him before June 1 would knock $10 million off that cap hit, but who in their right mind is going to trade for Jeffery after looking at his contract and watching his 2019 game film?
Draft analyst Ben Fennell has been periodically breaking down some of the top prospects in the 2020 NFL draft for The Inquirer. He is an Emmy award-winning producer, editor, and researcher for several media outlets, including the NFL Network and ESPN college football. Today, he breaks down his top five running backs:
Wisconsin, 5-11, 221
Fennell: “Taylor is a speed back with elite size. He was a state-champion sprinter at Salem (N.J.) High School. He’s a patient runner with excellent vision and timing who lets blocks develop. He’s tough in the open field, but not a shaker. He’s good at using a stiff-arm. He has some ball-security issues and there are questions about his third-down value in the NFL.’’
Comp: former Falcon Michael Turner
Georgia, 5-9, 215
Fennell: “Swift is a dual-threat back with good hands and excellent pass-catching value. He’s a power runner with a thick lower body and a strong core. Has home run speed and is capable of making a lot of explosive plays. Needs to improve his decisiveness and sharpen his cuts, but both things are teachable.’’
Comp: Frank Gore
Ohio State, 5-10, 214
Fennell: “Dobbins is a short, stocky back with a low center of gravity. He has good long speed with short-area bursts. He’s a tough, well-rounded player. Good in pass protection. Can catch the ball. And does his job away from the ball as well. He’s not the most dynamic runner in space.’’
Comp: former Buc and Raider Doug Martin
Utah, 5-9, 205
Fennell: “Moss has an elite contact balance trait. He’s tough to bring down. He’s a finishing runner who almost always falls forward. Gets ‘dirty’ yards. He runs with good pad level, and is a productive short-yardage back as well. Has questionable long speed and has had minimal involvement in Utah’s pass game (21 catches in 10 games). So his third-down value has yet to be determined.’’
Comp: former Titan Chris Johnson