The potential of taking a wide receiver with a first-round selection has largely flown under the radar, until recently. The evidence pointing to it being a real possibility is too much to ignore. To date, they’ve brought in seven receivers on official visits.
The question is, why? The Eagles have Alshon Jeffery locked up until 2021. DeSean Jackson just signed a 3-year $27.9M contract. That’s two of the three starting positions on a team that operated from 11 personnel 55% in 2018 (t-13th).
You could argue that the offense will utilize more 12/13 personnel sets, but there’s not much more of a ceiling to hit if you look at the rest of the league. The Eagles’ had multiple tight ends on the field for 40% of the offensive snaps. That ranked 2nd in the league. Even with the continued emergence of Dallas Goedert, the Eagles are already well above the league average.
Having to avoid creating a serious logjam and a waste of resources, who’s the odd man out? The obvious answer is Nelson Agholor. He’s currently on his fifth-year option worth approximately $9.4M. I’ve been a staunch Agholor supporter, but if put my personal opinion of him aside, it makes sense that his role is the one up for grabs.
Without any serious needs in the starting twenty-two, drafting for a future that may be here sooner than next offseason makes sense. If Agholor is on the move, framing the discussion under that umbrella leads to an interesting conversation.
The Biggest Slots In All the Land…
There are three schools of thinking with the official visits the Eagles have brought in. First off, they’ve got some real tall trees on the list. N’Keal Harry (Arizona State), AJ Brown (Ole Miss), and Jalen Hurd (Baylor) all come in over 6’ and 225 pounds. Another top projected selection Hakeem Butler of Iowa State fits the same mold.
If they were to replace Agholor’s snaps, they’d be massive slot receivers. Is that why the Eagles are interested in them? Harry ran 32% of his routes from the slot, followed by Brown and Hurd who checked in at a robust 59% and 96% respectively.
Here’s where things get muddy: the Eagles already have two big slots. They’re Zach Ertz and Goedert. Over half (53%) of Ertz’s routes came from being detached from the line. Only Green Bay’s Jimmy Graham had more snaps from that alignment in 2018. Goedert checked in with a healthy 31% of slot reps himself. Wouldn’t adding another tall tree to the mix be overkill?
In all, if you count Agholor as an eventual goner if a wide receiver is selected and add up all the other departures, you get a giant amount of snaps to fill. 610 slot snaps are up for grabs in that scenario. They may have already accounted for a chunk of those snaps.
There’s a wildcard in all of this: DeSean Jackson. Of his three stops, nobody utilized him less from the slot than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Last year he operated from that alignment for only 55 snaps (16%). With the Washington Redskins, his usage trended slightly up every year (27% > 29% > 30%).
One of Jackson’s most productive seasons from an inside alignment came in 2015 with the Redskins. In 82 of his 286 routes run, Jackson was targeted 20 times for 15 receptions, 297 yards, and 3 touchdowns. That might not seem like a lot, but that’s 19.8 yards per catch and a healthy 3.62 yards per route run. Small sample size, yes, but it’s dynamic production.
You could argue Adam Humphries limited how often the Bucs kicked Jackson inside. When they did, he flashed seam busting potential. One false step from a safety and it’s going to the house.
If Agholor is on the block, the Eagles don’t have a Humphries to limit Jackson from being kicked inside. In that scenario, is a return to 30% feasible? Possibly more? The Eagles have obvious interest in stressing the vertical seams of defenses, which brings us to our next set of visits.
Finding A Streamstress…
The third school of thought falls in line with the more conventional type third receiver. Marquise Brown (Oklahoma), Parris Campbell (Ohio State), Diontae Johnson (Toledo), and Mecole Hardman (Georgia) fall in this bucket and are all official visits sans Brown. All of them are 5’11” or shorter and 205 pounds or lighter. Some are significantly lighter; Brown only tips the scales at 166 pounds.
Diontae Johnson serves as an outlier here with limited slot experience and the slowest 40-yard dash of the bunch (4.53). The other head-scratcher is Parris Campbell, who despite torching 4.31, only caught two balls with 20+ air yards last year. His average depth of target is the lowest in the class and he was asked to run less deep routes than any other receiver that Sports Info Solutions scouted in their 2019 Rookie Handbook. What can he do versus what was he asked to do is a major question mark with Campbell.
Full disclosure: Brown checks in as my 50th overall prospect and my WR8. I have serious concerns about his ability to deal with contact throughout the route stem and at the catch-point. 15 drops in the last two years in college transitioning to tighter windows in the NFL scare the hell out of me. Last year his drop rate of 8.5% ranked 109th in the class. That’s not good, folks.
Regardless of my evaluation, there’s a huge chance he goes higher than where I slot him on my board. What if Brown was consistently afforded free releases? Am I less concerned? Most definitely. He’d be my WR2 behind Deebo Samuel if we were talking slot options and they represent two very different profiles. It doesn’t completely erase my concerns at the catch-point but it puts him in those disadvantageous situations at the line with much less frequency. Fit matters and I can see a path for Brown to be more productive from in the inside than the outside.
If Brown is a better fit inside, you wouldn’t know from how they used him. Only 85 (23%) of his routes came from the slot. Context matters here, as Oklahoma’s offense used a heavy dose of sets with less than three wide receivers. In fact, their base personnel was two running backs and one tight end. That naturally caps Brown’s potential frequency from inside. When he was used in the slot though, my goodness.
7.45 yards per route run from the slot is, to use a technical term, coo-coo bonkers. It’s first in the class and 2.2+ yards higher than second place. You’ll also notice the market share for each stat is significantly higher than his alignment frequency. After seeing that, of course I went to the film. The video below is four examples of how I would utilize Brown in the proposed role. Notice the free releases.
It’s easier for me to project Brown to an inside role where he can avoid press coverage. It’s not that he’s not capable of winning releases, in fact it’s a strength, but he barely saw it in college. Beating press in college is one thing, beating it in the NFL where you’ll see more contact is another.
If Brown is drafted and used in an outside role, not all hope is lost. His money routes are successful in the same way as Jackson. Per Next Gen Stats, in 2018 Jackson received the 2nd most cushion (7.3 yards) in the league & was 2nd in average targeted air yards. Brown’s deep speed should afford him some cushion when teams don’t have the personnel or scheme to match him downfield from tighter alignments.
Regardless of where he plays, Brown has an important trump card working in his favor. Of the receivers the Eagles have brought in for visits, none come close to his deep ball production. Last year on throws over 20 yards, Brown hauled in 13 receptions for 592 yards and 5 touchdowns.
The questions these different schools of thought present to a defense are many:
- How do we deploy your defense with Jackson outside and Brown inside?
- How do we defend both Jackson and Brown in the slot?
- Does Jackson kicking inside reduce the amount of resources we can use to stopp the big boys outside?
- Do we have enough cover men on our roster that can matchup with that many big weapons?
- With so much speed threatening the deep middle, does Jeffery receive less cone brackets on the backside of trips?
- How will you protect the deep middle and properly account for the underneath routes?
- Can we afford to bracket Ertz?
- Is there anybody on our roster than can run with the burners without help?
It goes on and on. The Eagles are serious about adding a weapon in the 2019 NFL Draft. Whichever type they choose, if any, it may have a ripple effect on how their various chess pieces are deployed. By running through those different scenarios there’s an argument to be made that there’s room in the offense for another playmaker.
The draft is one massive butterfly effect that could fall a million different ways, the Eagles are preparing for every possible outcome.