You may have missed the game on Sunday; you did not miss the collective crescendo of exultation from southeast Pennsylvania. A wide receiver did more than catch a pass for the Eagles — that alone a justified cause for celebration among beleaguered Eagles fans — he caught several. He caught many. He caught all of them that came his way, and they weren’t easy catches, and they weren’t shallow catches, and they were on third down and through tight coverage and in the end zone. Drive continuers and point scorers from a wide receiver wearing midnight green — and 13, no less!
Travis Fulgham was a revelation for Philadelphia and Carson Wentz against the Steelers. His 10 catches and 150 yards were the best single-game performance since Jeremy Maclin in 2014 — accordingly, the first wide receiver to deliver such a day with Wentz at the helm. It was the most comfortable and trusting Wentz looked, regularly delivering throws to Fulgham on time, relying on him to uncover. It was the most dynamic the Eagles’ offense looked: they found chunk gains and were effective on third down and against pressure. The coaching staff worked to get him matchups and he rewarded their focus with a day that Eagles fans have long been anticipating from J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Jalen Reagor, DeSean Jackson...well, anybody besides Travis Fulgham, really.
The first and necessary question, then, is this: where did this come from?
Where Did This Come From?
Outta nowhere, really. Fulgham had a late explosion in his senior season at Old Dominion that warranted a Senior Bowl invite. He didn’t necessarily stand out on a roster that included Terry McLaurin, Andy Isabella, Hunter Renfrow, and Deebo Samuel. This was my only note referencing his play from the week:
Travis Fulgham having a strong 3rd day of practices thus far after a quiet start pic.twitter.com/l8lcs1fzv7— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) January 24, 2019
Fulgham showed a nice developmental profile given his lack of long experience and solid Combine performance, and was drafted accordingly in the sixth round by the Detroit Lions. Everyone knows the story after that: he spent a year on the practice squad, got cut this past offseason, bounced across Green Bay, and ended up on with the Eagles for the end of camp. He had been on the roster for 44 days before he was activated for the 49ers game.
A day later, he did this.
On this look, the ball should go to Fulgham. Wentz sees two high safeties at the snap and the one to Fulgham’s side of the formation drops to bracket TE Zach Ertz, leaving the single-high safety with a long runway to cover from the opposite hash to get to Fulgham’s nine route. No matter who was lined up there — Fulgham, Ward, Hightower, or Arcega-Whiteside — this ball should have gone to that route.
As such, I’m not sure there was any particular trust or bond between Wentz and Fulgham before this throw. Wentz throws it on time, and as the broadcast noted, that five-step-and-hitch drop dictates that Wentz releases the ball as Fulgham is still covered. Belief in Fulgham to uncover is required to attempt this throw, but for the receivers that Wentz has endured over the last couple of seasons, it’s not as if he’d have much more belief in anyone else.
Fulgham uncovers, makes a great catch on a great throw, and scores — it was the explosive vertical shot the Eagles have been hunting since Week 1 against Washington, and many consider that play the spark that ignited the Wentz-Fulgham relationship.
But on Fulgham’s subsequent explosion against the Steelers, it wasn’t his nine route that the Eagles and Wentz went hunting. It was everything else.
I don't really want to hear about "cross-training" WRs in Philly being a challenge again because Travis Fulgham came in and did it in less than 2 months - pic.twitter.com/exb5P2Tfbx— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) October 13, 2020
The Eagles took advantage of Fulgham’s two best traits coming out of college against the Steelers: his catch radius and his route running. A smooth player who understands leverage and doesn’t waste time working his breaks, Fulgham wasn’t given a simple route tree to ease his landing in the starting lineup. Twice Fulgham was targeted on a deep out, a difficult throw for any quarterback that requires velocity and timing — by first working out, and then in on his stems, Fulgham took advantage of the Steelers’ bail technique on their outside corners to generate space for his eventual break to the sideline.
These are both third down routes, and while they threaten the vertical route, they’re meant to attack a tight window beyond the sticks. This route also requires a lot of faith from the offensive structure and the protection: it’s a long-developing route that won’t give Wentz an opportunity to go through a progression afterward. If Wentz commits to Fulgham, he needs to win his route — the ball is coming his way.
This demonstrates the trust that Wentz has in Fulgham — he expects him to win on this deep out the way Alshon Jeffery has often done for Wentz in his young career. He liked the matchup he had in Fulgham (two career catches coming into this game) against veteran NFL corners in Joe Haden and Steven Nelson.
The kinda bad, but also pretty good news is that Wentz’s timing with Fulgham still isn’t perfect. Wentz was on time on a couple more throws, including a nice backside Post-Stop route that got batted on the line of scrimmage and another deep out-breaker on a speed cut. But he was late to Fulgham on a deep stop route that could have gone for more YAC, and Fulgham broke late on a sight adjustment to his vertical route against off coverage.
It is wild to consider how much difficulty the Eagles have had integrating new receivers when compared to the immediate success of Fulgham, who immediately had the three-course meal of route adjustments plopped onto his plate. The Eagles basically run John Hightower on slants, curls, nines, and deep posts and overs; Fulgham’s routes have as many options and adjustments as Zach Ertz’s do, as Alshon Jeffery’s used to. Fulgham has been lauded as a scholar of the game going back to his days at Old Dominion, and it’s clear that the Eagles like him for such a player as well.
That is the real reason that Fulgham hasn’t been targeted on a vertical shot other than his touchdown. His first reception against the Niners, and his first reception against the Steelers were both on vertical routes that adjusted to curls against off coverage.
This is the bread and butter of the value Fulgham brings to Philadelphia, and this more than any deep touchdown is why Wentz has faith in Fulgham. Fulgham is where Wentz expects, when he expects him to be there. That sounds simple, but many of the problems that Wentz has had with other receivers over the last two years has concerned their chemistry. Fulgham and Wentz are seeing the field similarly, and that’s why Wentz wants to throw him isolation routes on 3rd and longs, why the coaching staff wants him schemed into good looks on...well, on more 3rd and longs.
Look at the way Fulgham slows once the ball is in the air to box out the underneath corner from the catch point. That’s the good stuff, baby.
Fulgham couldn’t drop a ball if he tried against Pittsburgh; he was snapping of veteran corners. I’m not sure either one of those truths will hang around long-term. Fulgham is likely to lose a contested catch or two in the future, and now clearly defined as the Eagles’ top pass-catching threat, he’ll be harder to open via alignment as defenses key in.
But he will continue to be a smart player who has more of Wentz’s trust than any receiver other than Ertz has currently accrued — and with Ertz struggling this year, that’s going to take him a long way.
Where Is This Going?
The Eagles gave Fulgham the whole kit and caboodle in Week 5, and he delivered on every opportunity. Even as the Eagles look to onboard currently injured pass-catchers in DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, Jalen Reagor, and Dallas Goedert, Fulgham will undoubtedly continue to be active and have a role in the offense. What will that role look like?
Fulgham’s full grasp of the route tree in the Eagles’ book is extremely encouraging. This allows the Eagles to continue working his vertical game, which they featured against the Steelers, while grooming his short game as well. As more players return to the fold, the Eagles can keep him on those routes that will keep him on smooth paths, like the deep comeback, deep out, and nine route, so as to limit the exposure of his average acceleration and change of direction.
Fulgham isn’t in line for any more 13 target games, but he will continue to be a great option on intermediate routes and Wentz’s favorite target on late downs given his reliable hands and ability to win through contact. For Fulgham to nail down a long-term role with the Eagles, he’ll need to spend the next few weeks proving that he is so reliable, he still commands a role on a wide receiver room that prioritizes speed. Given how much the Eagles and Wentz already trust him, I’m confident that he will.