The Rise of Nelson Agholor

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

[Editor's note: Promoted from the FanPosts.]

The Why

Facing a near mutiny, with his toes curling over the edge of the plank, and a sword from the city jabbing him in the back, Nelson Agholor refused to step off the ship.

I believe that if you are a true Philadelphia sports fan you must appreciate the story that has been cultivated over the past three years. You must give proper recognition to the situation that is unfolding in front of your very eyes. The now cliche and almost obligatory Rocky Balboa quote has never been more fitting than it is in this situation. You know the one,

"It ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward- how much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done. If you know what you're worth, then go out and get what you're worth, but you gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain't where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody."

I was one of the many fans calling for Agholor's head at the end of last season. I, like many others, labeled the then 23 year old as a bust, doomed to never be a contributor in this league for as long as he lives. I, like many others, was wrong. And now I'm writing this to give credit where credit is due.

So here we go.

The Context

In 2015, former Eagles Head Coach Chip Kelly used the 20th overall selection in the draft to select a wide receiver from the University of Southern California. Many people scratched their heads initially, for Nelson Agholor wasn't exactly a household name. With other receivers like Amari Cooper, Kevin White, and DeVante Parker headlining the receiving talent that year, I don't think many fans (myself included) expected the Birds to go after the WR position at 20. However, after a few highlight clips flashed on the screen showing a player with burst, speed, and a versatile skillset including receiving, running, and kickoff returning capabilities, many people began to nod their head with understanding.

That offseason, Kelly transformed the Eagles' roster from something of familiarity to something uncertain. Eagles veterans such as LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, and Nick Foles were the notable departures from that offseason entering the 2015 NFL Draft. Conversely, Kelly managed to reel in names like Sam Bradford, DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews, and hilariously, Tim Tebow. On paper, it was hard to tell exactly where the Eagles were bound to be headed coming into that season.

One thing was for certain, though. The Eagles had a glaring hole at the receiver position. If you remember correctly, before Agholor's draft day came, the Philadelphia receiving core was led by names such as Jordan Matthews, Josh Huff, and the infamous Riley Cooper. They lacked a receiver who had a complete skillset and "X-receiver" potential.

With the 20th overall pick, the Philadelphia Eagles then selected a decent sized receiver at 6 feet tall, weighing in at 200 pounds. He had 4.40 speed, quick feet, burst off the line of scrimmage, and he seemed to have a good head on his shoulders. Coach Kelly, always searching for "character guys", seemed to find one in Agholor, the well spoken kid of Nigerian decent.

For all intents and purposes, the Agholor selection was justified. Kelly was an up-tempo, offensive minded coach who needed someone to replace Jeremy Maclin, who walked in free agency. Sure, there were other needs, but as draft analyst Mel Kiper said on draft day,

"A lot of people were really on this guy and wanted to see him slide down the board a bit."

Sounds like the Birds got their guy, right?

Maybe not.

Agholor's rookie season had a ton of people questioning Chip Kelly's ability to evaluate talent. Only the year before, Chip took Marcus Smith III in the first round with the 26th overall pick. The defensive end from Louisville had zero sacks in his rookie year and played in limited snaps. Now, one year later, the newest first round rookie only managed to reel in a measly 23 catches for a putrid 283 yards and one, lonesome touchdown.

Agholor's NFL problems seemed to be an innate inability to catch the ball and beat press coverage off the line, which is an enormous achilles heel, to say the least. Many people were calling him a bust only one season into his NFL career. And many of the people who were reserving judgement until year number two couldn't hold their tongue after he had an extremely disappointing sophomore season as well.

In 2016, Nelly only managed to improve his statistics slightly, catching the ball 36 times for 365 yards and 2 TDs. Even if you combined his statistics from his first two seasons it wouldn't be all that spectacular of a year for a first round receiving talent to justify his draft stock.

So what happened?

Agholor's second season in the NFL was really, really rough. First of all, in the pre-season, he was accused of sexual misconduct allegations that left many wondering if he really lived up to the "good guy" persona that he was supposedly drafted for, in part. His status to begin the season was up in the air and it became a fairly large distraction in training camp for a window of time.

Come season's start, he was with a new head coach, a new QB, and he had fresh faces surrounding him at the receiver position. That wide receiving core was one of the worst in the league, led by Dorial Green-Beckham, Jordan Matthews, Bryce Treggs, Paul Turner, Josh Huff (for half the year before he was cut), and Agholor himself. That is not an inspiring group. Even though Matthews had some decent statistics, most Eagles fans saw his limitations and knew that he was incapable of being a gamebreakinig weapon at the position and fans looked at Nelly's "higher ceiling" to mitigate that fact.

Couple the lack of talent with a fairly raw rookie coming out of D1-AA to play QB with only 8 days notice before the season and a brand new coaching staff across the board and you're going to struggle. Looking back, many people probably would have given Agholor some slack for his lack of production if it wasn't for some of the more grotesque ways in which he struggled. We've all seen the highlights - or lowlights - of Agholor and his cinderblock hands from 2016. He flat out dropped catches that most high school receivers could haul in. I'm not an armchair athlete by any means. I look at NFL players and recognize that everything they do on the field is infinitely more than what am capable of doing. But with that being said, we can all agree that when you consistently drop balls that hit you right in the numbers with no one on you as a wide receiver in the NFL, something is seriously wrong.

At one point in 2016, new head coach Doug Pederson benched Agholor to give him time to cool off from whatever mental struggles he was dealing with. Besides the drops, number 17 was making simple mistakes that were hurting his team, such as failing to line up correctly against Seattle on a play that negated a touchdown. After that game in particular (the game before his benching) Nelly told reporters- in a fairly depressing post game interview,

"It's just - I got to get out of my own head...'cause I'm thinking too much and so worried. And it's just such a selfish thing that I need to stop. I need to give my energy to my teammates and this organization and not myself. And feeling so pressured to make every single thing- just have fun."

It was clear that Nelson Agholor was going through a mental funk that was threatening his career in the NFL. I honestly do not think that is an exaggerated statement. Fans and analysts alike were calling for Agholor to be benched and possibly to even be cut following the 2016 season. It was hard to not feel bad for him after that interview, though, for we saw the human side of the NFL that day. We saw how disappointed he was in himself and how much he was being affected by his lack of productivity as a player, as a man, and as a human being.

The Rise

Another year was in the books, and this time around, Eagles QB Carson Wentz had a full offseason to prepare as the starter. Howie Roseman made a splash in free agency, acquiring many shiny new toys for Eagles fans to enjoy. One of the new additions included veteran receiver, and former Pro Bowler, Alshon Jeffery. Howie let Jordan Matthews become expendable and traded him for Ronald Darby. Now, the receiving corps looked much improved from last year with additions including Jeffery, Torrey Smith, and rookie draft picks Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson. Eagles fans felt a bit of relief.

However, the writing began to show up on the wall for Agholor.

After giving up his jersey number to Jeffery (the number formerly worn by the greatest receiver in Eagles history, Harold Carmichael) and both symbolically and literally relinquishing the duties of the starting outside receiver for Philadelphia, the thought was that Agholor was now able to slide into the slot receiver position, where many think he belonged from the get-go. Jordan Matthews, the former slot guy, was gone and now Agholor couldn't hide as a substitute or a limited snap type of player. He was slated to be a contributor moving forward, starting then and there. Doug Pederson and the offensive coaching staff believed in Agholor, otherwise Jordan Matthews would probably still be around. Yes, I know much of that had to do with the need for Darby and a CB in general, but without confidence in Nelson, I'm not convinced that the deal could have been made.

The writing on the wall that I just mentioned would have probably said something like this:

"Nelson, this is your last chance to prove yourself".

Dramatic? Maybe.

Accurate? Probably.

The 2017 summer camps began to show a different Nelson Agholor than we knew before. He began keeping tallies on a white board in his locker of all the drops he had in practice, seemingly holding himself accountable as best as he could. He purchased a JUGS machine and supposedly stayed after practice at times to get in extra work. New receivers coach Mike Groh gave Agholor praise for his practices multiple times throughout camp, saying Nelly was showing signs of improvement.

Then Agholor entered the 2017 season with focus on the future, not the past.

Nelly's first game in the lucky number 13 uniform truly was that of a different player. He logged 6 catches for 86 yards and a touchdown to kickstart his confidence. And that's a key word right there,


We are 14 games into the season, and Nelson Agholor has more receiving yards this year than his previous two years combined. He has the second most touchdown receptions on the team with 8, tied with Zach Ertz, and only one TD behind Alshon Jeffery. He has a career high 13.1 yards per reception and more games with a TD catch than without this year.

But most notably, Nelly looks like he's having a blast out there.

Do you remember his 72 yard bomb where he danced the Cardinals' Buddha Baker out of his cleats and paid homage to Desean Jackson by ceremoniously falling backwards into the end zone for the score? That play is the quintessential 2017 Nelson Agholor highlight. He may have had better routes, better catches, and better runs in his career, but no other play exemplifies a guy going out on the field and having fun. The 2016 Nelson Agholor wouldn't have done that. The 2015 Nelson Agholor wouldn't have done it either.

Confidence breeds success.

Want more examples? In the next few games this year, watch him after he picks up a first down. He pops up to his feet and gives the classic first down chop signifying to the defense and to the fans that he kept the chains moving. We didn't see that from him much in the past.

Watch him after he scores. He will be celebrating with his team mates, throwing his arms in the air, exulting. We didn't get the chance to see much of that in the past either. He's come a long way from his first TD celebration where he was so excited he nearly spun around and slipped on national TV.

Watch him when he makes a catch in traffic and takes a big pop from a defender. He bounces right up and pumps his arms, pounds his chest, and let's everyone know he's still right here, and you can't stop him.

And he's not just confident, he's legitimately good.

The last game we all watched against the Giants saw Agholor snag 7 passes for 59 yards and a TD, being there for his team and his backup QB. But most impressively was that touchdown reception where he leaped in the air and plucked the ball off the defender's back in tight coverage. He successfully did his best Alshon Jeffery impersonation so well to the point where I actually thought it was Alshon at first.

Prior to this year, I don't think Agholor had the capability to make a grab like that. But 2017 Nelly is New Nelly, indeed.

If you asked me how many drops he had this year I couldn't tell you. They've been such a non-factor that I have almost forgot about them. Sure, he dropped a ball against the Rams that led to an interception, but drops will happen in the NFL.

The catches he's making and the moves he makes after the catch are legitametly impressive. He has very good ability to make defenders miss in space. He isn't a slot receiver who excels due to the scheme he's put in (cough, cough, Cole Beasely). Rather, he's an NFL talent who has figured himself out and is showcasing his skillset to the world and for his team.

He can drag his toes, make one handed catches, create separation in his routes, use his hands and body to gain leverage on defenders, concentrate in traffic, and make sliding and diving catches in the middle of the field. And apparently, now he can Moss defenders too.

My point being with all of this is that he's proved that he is over his past mistakes.

He's proved that he is a big reason for the success of the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles.

He's proved that he belongs on this team.

He's proved that he is one of the pieces to this team moving forward.

He's proved he clicks with the young, franchise QB.

He's proved he can be a deep, middle, and short range threat.

He's proved that he is better than Jordan Matthews.

He's proved that he has earned the admiration and trust of this fanbase, and I hope he continues to improve.

In Conclusion

Nelson Agholor may not win the Comeback Player of the Year for the league, but he's certainly earned it amongst the players on his team. He deserves a lot of credit for picking himself back up from his rocky start, and I think this fanbase should recognize his efforts and continue to lift him up. Howie Roseman likes to reward homegrown talent, giving extensions to Ertz, Johnson, and Cox among others. And although Agholor hasn't quite reached the prestige of those guys, I hope that when it comes time to evaluate whether or not to pick up his 5th year option, they do (if they haven't extended him before that).

His past struggles will probably lower any future contract's worth, which in turn will help the Eagles save a bit of cash, admittedly. I mention that to quell the cries of those who still haven't converted into believers and who will be quick to point out his history. I understand. I'm not anointing him the next best thing to hit Philly since the Cheesesteak. I'm simply giving credit where it's due and wishfully thinking that if he builds on his success next year, he will be worthy of an extension like the other extended Eagles have been worthy of theirs.

Him stepping up filled a fairly big void on the Eagles roster. Torrey Smith hasn't panned out much, Shelton Gibson probably shouldn't have made the team, Mack Hollins hasn't gotten very many snaps, and even Alshon Jeffery struggled early in the season to make plays. During all of that, surprisingly, Agholor has been the model of consistency that has helped spare the offense in conjunction with Zach Ertz. If Agholor didn't play to the level he has been playing at, the Eagles are not one of the best offenses in the league, and they most certainly aren't 12-2.

A big shoutout is in order to the coaching staff as well. Kudos to Doug, Frank Reich, and Mike Groh for their ability to develop Nelson into what he is and call the plays that put him in a position to succeed. They inherited him, they didn't choose him. It wouldn't have been hard to justify cutting him and starting fresh with their guys.

However, they saw his ability and cultivated it instead of giving up on him. When others labeled him a bust, the coaching staff saw a malnourished player in terms of NFL level development. Big kudos to Carson for putting the ball where it needed to be for him as well.

Who knows what the future holds. Who knows how this season will end for the Birds, what Nelly's stats will be, or anything else.

But what we do know is we must give credit to Agholor for bouncing back and gritting his teeth through all the chaos. I think fans, especially Philly fans, really appreciate that type of player. Hopefully you enjoyed the read and the perspective.