By Ste Tough (@SteTough)

The burning question for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2020…

Will the WR’s actually stay on the field and further yet, actually catch the ball?

The clear issue that has faced the Eagles in the last 2 seasons has been the wide-out position. So much so that Philly would probably have rioted had Howie not selected a Wide-Receiver with that First Rounder back in April. That receiver room looks very different going into 2020, but how impactful can they be?

One element of the offence that Philly has lacked since their impressive Superbowl-winning campaign in 2017 is a speedy pass-catcher that can stretch the secondary and take the top off a defence. Even if they are not the #1 priority route for the QB each play, having a speedy receiver just gives the defence something else to think about.

In 2017, between Agholor, Jeffery and Smith the three top WR’s (based on total receiving yards) on the Eagles, they had 23 20+ yard plays on offence in the regular season and a further 8 between them in the postseason – totaling 31. In 2019, their top 3 receivers (Jeffery, Agholor & Arcega-Whiteside) had 15 between them with none in the postseason. Astonishingly, Zach Ertz (12), Dallas Goedert (8) and Miles Sanders (8) all had more ‘big’ plays than any of the Eagles’ top 3 wide-outs. 

Doug Pederson says Carson Wentz has embraced being a leader for Eagles
Chris Szagola / AP

Does this mean that the quality has gone down? Does Wentz just not trust the guys he’s throwing to? Does injury play a part? There’s a little of all three in play here. 

Philadelphia started the season having Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson and Nelson Agholor at the top of their WR depth chart. 18 weeks later, they started the NFC Wild Card game vs Seattle with Greg Ward, Deontay Burnett and Rob Davis (who didn’t even catch a pass) as their top 3 receivers. None of those players were on the Eagles’ roster at the beginning of the season. Injuries are obviously playing a part here. Jackson suffered an abdominal injury very early in the Falcons game in week 2, and whilst he returned to the field versus Chicago in Week 9, he reignited the injury almost immediately and didn’t play another 2019 snap. Jeffery went down in week 14 vs NYG with a foot injury, which later turned out to be a Linsfranc injury from which he is still recovering. Agholor had a knee injury he couldn’t seem to shake and didn’t feature again following the week 13 loss in Miami.

With the amount of injuries in the WR room, the fact that Wentz was still able to lead the team from 5-7 to four consecutive wins to round out the season should earn him far more plaudits than it did. 

Whilst those injuries obviously had an effect on production at the position, Eagles wide outs in 2019 also just quite simply weren’t as good. Trying to measure the metric of ‘drops’ is difficult as there is no official definition of a ‘drop’. The throw, positioning of the ball, positioning of the WR, defender and all sorts of other factors can come into play. Nevertheless, going from catches that are be deemed ‘catchable’, amongst WRs in their 2019 regular season, they had 15 drops. That may not seem like a huge number, less than once a game. But the problem is that they came at such crucial times. Agholor vs Falcons late in the 4th Quarter would have seen the Eagles go up by three with less than 2 minutes remaining.

Arcega-Whiteside vs Detroit would have put the birds up by four with 40 seconds left.

Agholor again this time against New England in the end-zone. Whilst that was a more difficult catch, it’s not too dissimilar to the catch he made against them 2 years prior in the Superbowl.

The Eagles lost all 3 of those games, and whilst a single play can’t be blamed for the loss as a whole, if they win even just 2 of those 3 games, they end with a record of 11-5 and perhaps could have looked at resting some starters in week 17. A whole load of ‘what-ifs?’…

So what of the upcoming campaign?

Well I think there is certainly reason for Eagles’ fans to be hopeful, dare I even say excited? 

Has Eagles' DeSean Jackson matured since Philadelphia cut him 5 years ago?  Ask his inner circle -
Matt Slocum / AP

Firstly, DeSean Jackson has had the entire offseason to keep healthy and from early training-camp reports looks ready to hit the ground running. A recent video showing him burning no other than recent CB1 acquisition Darius Slay and catching a perfectly thrown ball from Carson should have fans salivating. It’s only training camp. I must not get overexcited…

New boy on campus Jalen Reagor has reportedly been training at both the X and Z WR position, and whilst it was first said he would deputise under Jackson, having him on the field with him at the same time can surely only be a good thing? His highlight reel at TCU certainly shows a number of impressive catches, especially contested ones. The sooner the Eagles can get him firing the better. An injury in preseason has left him in doubt for week 1, putting the road blocks on hitting the ground running.

The birds also added further depth at the position, something they have been crying out for. John Hightower and Quez Watkins were both late-round draft picks, both of whom possess impressive speed. 

Doug Pederson also recently admitted that Greg Ward is in the running to start at slot-receiver. Is he the guy in the slot? I think that remains to be seen, but he adds some experience, especially with how much the Eagles were forced to rely on him down the stretch last season.

However, flip that coin over and there is still certainly room to be doubtful. 

Alshon Jeffery, with his enormous, fully-guaranteed contract, remains on the team and on the PUP list. Will he ever find that dominance that he had in 2017, or are his best years very much now behind him? Either way, I would be surprised if he ever plays another snap in the midnight green.

Arcega-Whiteside, a 2019 Second-rounder does not look like he will produce anywhere near what you would expect from that level of draft pick. Although he had very brief flashes of his ability through 2019, those were too few and far between. He seriously needs to improve in 2020 or I think his time with Philly could come to a very forgettable end.

The giant elephant-in-the-room for Philadelphia is that they are just one or two injuries away from having to hold more open practices to find pass-catchers.

I’m not sure there’s another Vince Papale tending a bar in South Philly that could walk on to the field in Week 6 vs Marcus Peters and the Baltimore secondary and put up 150 yards… 

Let’s hope Philadelphia don’t have to try that.

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