The main storyline of the Eagles 2016 season will be the inevitable ascension up the depth chart of Carson Wentz, and rightfully so. But while the day that Wentz takes over the starting duties may not come for a while, there are other areas of intrigue that we can look at immediately. One is the progress (or lack of progress) of the Eagles young group of WRs. The Eagles 2015 passing game was awful not just because the QBs played poorly for most of the year, but also because the WRs played poorly too.
The coaching staff deserves quite a bit of blame. Among many of Chip Kelly’s failings was his staff’s total inability to develop WRs. Jordan Matthews is a very good WR, but was essentially the same player in 2015 as he was in 2014, and in some ways regressed. Nelson Agholor was one of the least productive starting WRs in the league. When Josh Huff made any kind of play he usually would immediately ride the bench for multiple series. The best seasons by Chip Kelly’s WRs were the polished holdovers from the Andy Reid era who either benefited from Kelly’s offense catching the league off guard in 2013 (DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper) or benefiting from being a clear #1 WR on the team and getting a career high in targets (Jeremy Maclin). Kelly’s WR coach Bob Bicknell was short on experience, having only been a WR coach for one previous year, he was previously a well traveled OL coach. He was even shorter on results. Coupled with an offense that had become stale and predictable by 2015, young WRs development was handicapped.
Matthews is easily the best WR on the team, and one of the best WRs to come out of the WR rich 2014 draft. He is 3rd in receptions among those peers, behind only Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, and ahead of Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks and Allen Robinson, to name a few. He is 6th in yards, due in part to his operation in the slot were deep passes are far and few between compared to outside receivers, and 2nd in touchdowns behind Beckham.
But 2015 wasn’t a particularly good year for him. His yards per reception dropped over a full yard from 13.0 to 11.7, and for most of the season he struggled with drops. Other than the chance that his ceiling is barely above his floor there’s little concern for Matthews in 2016. It would be great if he could prove that he can play on the outside, but being a top slot WR is pretty good. He will play often, he will play well, and he will be productive even if he has no room to progress. His teammates are the concern.
Assuming for a moment that Nelson Agholor will be on the 2016 Eagles...
Agholor’s 23 receptions for 283 yards and 1 TD was one of the worst seasons by any WR, not just in 2015 but of any top pick rookie WR in recent memory. Of rookie WRs who started at least 8 games, Agholor was near the bottom in every statistical category. Below are all those with 30 or fewer receptions over the past 20 seasons.
There's some players on here who developed into top WRs. Plaxico Burress was even less productive than Agholor in his rookie season, then exploded in his 2nd year with a 1000 yard season and 6 TDs. Roddy White kept the same production in his 2nd year with Mike Vick but had a breakout season in his 3rd year with Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich and Chris Redman as his QB. And Reggie Wayne doubled his production in his 2nd year. The rest of Agholor's peers didn't amount to much though.
Part of Agholor's struggles were due to an ankle injury that kept him out for four and a half games in October and November, and when he returned it was with Mark Sanchez at QB, who was awful. But prorating his 2nd half of the season to a full year, Agholor would sport a stat line of 30 catches for 356 yards and 2 TDs, which is actually a lower yards per reception (11.9 vs 12.3). There was no adjustment to the NFL and improved play by Sam Bradford didn’t help any.
Compounding the Eagles inability to progress any of their WRs is that Agholor is probably a flawed prospect to begin with. USC has produced nine WRs who were top 100 draft picks from the Pete Carroll legacy era (that is, WRs coached by him and his coaching tree there, Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, who were Carroll’s offensive coordinators), and despite putting up big numbers in college, nearly all of them have been underwhelming as pros.
Keary Colbert (62nd overall 2004) his rookie season of 47/754/5 was the best of his career, he played for five teams in seven non-consecutive seasons.
Mike Williams (10th overall 2005) a bbust who found one good half season under Carroll in 2010. He played for four teams in five non-consecutive seasons.
Dwayne Jarrett (45th overall 2007) caught 35 passes in four years.
Steve Smith (51st overall 2007) battled injuries throughout his career, but in his one healthy season was terrific, putting up 107/1220/7.
Patrick Turner (87th overall 2009) had ten catches in four seasons, three of those seasons were not for the team that drafted him.
Damian Williams (77th overall 2010) had a decent season in 2011 and then was out of football three years later.
Robert Woods (41st overall 2013) is a decent #2 in Buffalo but nothing more.
Marqise Lee (39th overall 2014) is the 4th WR on the Jaguars depth chart.
Williams, Lee, Woods, Jarrett and Colbert all had big production in college. Agholor was no different, top 10 in all of CFB in both receptions and receiving yards. The USC Carroll coaching tree passing game puts up huge numbers pretty much year in and year out, and has yet to produce a consistently good player in the NFL at any skill position aside from Carson Palmer, (who Carroll inherited). Without a significant step up from Nelson Agholor, that won’t change.
The jury isn’t out yet on Agholor, but history isn’t kind to players in his situation.
The play, or lack of play, of Josh Huff has been maddening. Coming from Oregon, you would think that Huff would be a Chip Kelly favorite. Instead, he has apparently spent most of his career in the doghouse. It seemed that nearly every time Huff actually got a chance to show ability, he would be relegated to the bench for significant stretches of the game. Huff saw very little playing time in 2014, and caught just 8 passes, and in 2015 had inconsistent playing time. Some of it made no sense.
Against the Titans in 2014 Huff returned the opening kickoff for a TD in what would be 43-23 blowout win. Huff was untouched on the return, but a 107 yard return is a 107 yard return. The Eagles were ahead by over two touchdowns the entire second half, which is exactly the situation you want to give a rookie playing time in. Huff was never thrown to the entire game.
Against the Tampa in 2015 he had a terrific 39 yard TD, one of the few really good plays by an Eagles WR in 2015. He was never thrown to again that game.
In a blowout loss to Lions he had just one target, in the 3rd quarter.
Huff may not become a viable WR, but the coaching staff did little to help him. On a team starved for playmakers, Huff routinely saw the bench despite making some plays while some most of the depth chart above him didn’t. A player’s growth can only be stunted by sitting out significant portions of games.
Huff should get a clean slate, but he’s got to demonstrate that the flashes he showed in limiting playing time were a glimpse into a consistent player and not just a handful of good plays.
All of the players should have more help this year on and off the field. A new playbook and play caller will mean the Eagles won’t be running the same play over and over in a single game in an offense that the league had adjusted to two seasons ago. Instead, they should be calling plays that work to the players’ strengths, rather than try to keep shoving square pegs into round holes.
They should also get better individual coaching. WR coach Greg Lewis is a relative newcomer to coaching, with just three years as a WR coach, all at the college level. But he did spend eight seasons in the league, almost all of it under the Andy Reid coaching tree that Doug Pederson comes from. Having been a player is no guarantee for coaching success, but having been a player for nearly a decade in the same system that he now coaches should be a benefit. And offensive coordinator Frank Reich has two years as a WR coach, one in Indianapolis and one in Arizona, where he coached the then to-date best season of Pierre Garcon’s career despite a rotating door of awful QBs in Peyton Manning’s lost year in Indy, and in Arizona the best season of Andre Roberts career and a solid rookie season out of Michael Floyd. It may not be much, but both have a better resume for coaching WRs than Bob Bicknell.