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Eagles training camp position battle preview: Wide receivers

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NFL: Philadelphia Eagles-Minicamp Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Can somebody step up on the outside?

The 2015 Eagles had one of the worst groups of wide receivers in the league, and 2016 will likely be a similar story, but there is reason for hope. Gone are Riley Cooper and Miles Austin, no longer able to take away playing time from young players, gone is an offensive line coach as the wide receivers coach, and gone is Chip Kelly’s stale and predictable playbook.

The incumbents: Nelson Agholor* on the outside, Jordan Matthews in the slot, Josh Huff on the bench.

*We will assume that the under investigation Agholor will remain on the roster.

Previously we detailed the situation for the Eagles incumbent young WRs: Agholor and Huff were in part failed by their situation and while that situation has changed for the better, they need to show something on their own. Matthews is head and shoulders the best WR on the team and one of the best slot WRs in the league.

The challengers: Rueben Randle, Chris Givens, various camp bodies.

Randle comes to the Eagles after four years with the Giants, the last two of which were quietly pretty productive. In 2014 and 2015 he was a starter, totaling 128 receptions (T-27th among WRs) for 1735 yards (T-24th) and 11 TDs (T-31st). Of course those seasons came opposite Odell Beckham and with Eli Manning throwing him the ball, in Philadelphia he will have a vastly different situation. At 25 and on a one year, $1M contract, he’s the kind of gamble a team like the Eagles should be taking.

Givens spent most of the past four seasons with the Rams, where in 2012 and 2013 he was a starter with Sam Bradford. In 25 starts in 31 games he caught 76 passes for 1267 yards and 3 TDs. Givens was a low volume deep threat, among WRs with at least 40 catches over those two seasons he was just 62nd in receptions but 5th in yards per reception at 16.7. Givens has a small chance to start, but on a team lacking any kind of deep threat, he’s got a really good chance at making the roster.

The rest of the 90 man roster WR depth chart is seven guys likely fighting for one spot. T.J. Graham, like Givens, was a low volume deep threat in 2012 and 2013, but was far less productive as his yards per reception during that time was just 12.7, 61st among WRs. Jonathan Krause spent the 2015 season on the Eagles practice squad. The UDFAs come in all flavors. Marcus Johnson has size and athleticism but lacks production, Hunter Sharp is a multi-use playmaker who probably fell out of the back of the draft due to character concerns, Cayleb Jones brings size but lacks top end speed and consistent production and also has character concerns (a running theme of Howie Roseman’s day three/UDFA selections), undersized Paul Turner was mildly productive but battled injuries, and Xavier Rush has size but missed half of his 2014 senior season and all of 2015 with a torn ACL. None of them are an Allen Hurns-like “one to watch out for.”

Leader in the clubhouse: Matthews and nobody else

Matthews has the slot locked down. The only question with him is if he can earn playing time on the outside when the Eagles are in 2 WR sets. The lack of quality options is in his favor. While jobs aren’t won in OTAs and minicamp, no one has really stepped up as a favorite. Randle missed time with gallbladder surgery and performed to mixed results. Huff had a poor spring, Agholor did little of note, Givens looked like the role player he has been, and none of the UDFAs, Graham or Krause stood out.

Contract implications: Even if he plays poorly, Agholor is guaranteed a roster spot by being a 1st last year (again for the purposes of this post we’re assuming here that there’s no significant legal fallout for him). Beyond them, everyone else fighting for a spot saves a small amount money if released.

Wild card: With the Eagles nearly sitting out free agency on WRs, it’s hard to imagine they would pick up a veteran if one was cut. If an in-season move is made, it would most likely be to add a special teamer.

Way too early prediction: Matthews, Agholor, Huff, Randle, Givens

The Eagles have 12 WRs in camp for 5, possibly 6 spots, so this seems like a position that is ripe for an “upset.” But looking at the depth chart, it’s hard to see where that would come from. As noted earlier Matthews and Agholor are locks. Randle not making the team would be a shock. Huff should get his chances and his ability as a kick returner pretty much guarantees him a roster spot, though RB Wendell Smallwood has some experience there. The team needs a deep threat and Givens is the most proven of the bunch and has experience with Bradford. That’s 5 WR, and that’s probably all the Eagles will take into the season. So most likely the other 7 WRs are competing for one, possibly two, practice squad jobs. Should one turn heads and make a case for himself, it’s probably Givens one dimensional spot that would be on the line.

It’s fittingly unexciting.