The rush to give a thumbs up or thumbs down move on the Eagles' decision to sign wide receiver Miles Austin this week is what happens in sports. An immediate grade must be given, regardless of whether it's fair or appropriate. Allowing a picture to be fully painted is not permitted in our want-it-now sports world.
In the case of the Eagles and their wide receivers, the only rational approach is to let this group fill out before opinions fly, and even though it's all premature. The truth is that not until the regular season begins can we have an accurate sense of Austin in this offense and what the wide receiver group brings to the table.
What are some reasonable expectations to be made in these early days of March? Here is how the top four receivers, in no particular order, look from this perspective as the Eagles consider what they have at the position ...
Jordan Mathews: His first NFL season was solid in every way. Matthews isn't flashy. He's not a headlines-grabbing player. Matthews just does everything well. He runs well enough to play inside or outside. His hands are consistent. He runs good routes. He handles the mental part of the game very well. His blocking is developing. Best of all, Matthews knows what he is and has a good sense of balance. He's a team-oriented player who will not be outworked by anybody. Playing almost exclusively in the slot as a rookie, Matthews contributed 67 catches, 872 yards and 8 touchdowns. It's possible the Eagles leave him right there in the slot in 2015 to create favorable matchups, but they also have confidence that he can play outside as an every-down receiver. Expect his arrow to continue in the right direction.
Riley Cooper: I'm not sure the numbers tell the story on Cooper, but here is what they say: He caught more passes in 2014 than in 2013 (55 vs. 47), but his per-catch average dropped (17.8 yards vs. 10. 5 yards) and his touchdown numbers went down (8 vs. 3). So it's accurate to say that, all things considered, Cooper wasn't as productive in 2014 as he was in 2013. Fair enough. He's got to be better. Cooper is a big and strong player. He blocks very well for the running game. He plays hard. He has had a history of good hands (yes, I know that he dropped two passes last season). Cooper isn't a star. Nobody thinks he's a star. And, truth be told, he's probably best in a receiver rotation while also playing on special teams. Maybe that's the ultimate role Chip Kelly has in mind for Cooper. There is certainly going to be competition for Cooper's playing reps this season.
Josh Huff: The Eagles have a lot riding on Huff this season after making him a third-round draft pick in 2014. Huff had some moments as a rookie where his explosiveness was evident to all. The kid has some game. If he can just put it all together ... The question is: Can Huff put it all together? Can he consistently catch the football? Can he protect it when he has it? Are his routes and recognition skills refined enough to earn the trust of the coaching staff and the quarterbacks? The Eagles think Huff has a huge upside and, based on his athletic skills, he sure does. There is, however, a lot more that goes into success on the field. Huff is in the midst of his very critical offseason. He will take a lot of reps in the training sessions in the summer and is going to have a chance to earn substantial playing time, perhaps even a starting role.
Miles Austin: Signed on Tuesday to a one-year contract, Austin was having a good season in Cleveland in 2014 - he had 47 catches, 34 of them that resulted in first downs, in 13 games - before suffering a lacerated kidney that ended his year. Health is an issue here, no doubt about. After some breakout seasons in Dallas, Austin has been derailed by hamstring injuries and then the kidney deal. The Eagles think he's healthy and they think their sports science program will make him even better. Austin figures to challenge Cooper, so we'll see how that plays out. The Eagles signed Austin with the expectation that he will be on the field contributing to the offense with his big body and ability to go up and get the football in the passing game. It's a one-year contract and the risk for the Eagles is minimal, but this wasn't a throwaway signing. The Eagles like Austin and think he fits into what they want to do in the passing game.
Those are your top four receivers in early April. The season begins in September. Matthews-Cooper-Huff-Austin comes with questions, sure, and that's fair. But to dismiss a group with two second-year players - one of whom had the best rookie season in the history of Eagles wide receivers (and that includes DeSean Jackson in 2008 and Jeremy Maclin in 2009) - and two veterans who aren't being asked to catch 80 passes a season isn't exactly fair.
The Eagles are going to add to the position, trust me on that. It could be a high draft pick who comes in and changes the landscape. Or a player via a trade. Or a receiver who is out there on the streets now. If you're asking for percentages in any of the three scenarios, the most likely is that the Eagles will add a wide receiver or two in a draft that is said to be deep at the position.
Chip Kelly is going to make this work. This isn't James Thrash and Todd Pinkston, although the Eagles reached the NFC Championship Game in 2001 and 2002 with that twosome starting outside. It's a different era and a different offense, one that potentially features a devastating running game, versatile performers like Darren Sproles and Zach Ertz to help the passing game and maybe, just maybe, not as much reliance on the "star" power some think the Eagles are going to need at wide receiver.