For a few minutes there, it looked like the Philadelphia Eagles had stumbled onto a new star wide receiver.
Last season, Travis Fulgham made his first start in the Eagles’ Sunday night 25-20 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 4, where he hauled in two balls for 57 yards and his first touchdown. He followed that up with an incredible 10-catch, 152-yard game against the Steelers, and after his first five starts had caught 29 balls for 535 yards and four touchdowns.
Those numbers were the best of any receiver in the NFL during that stretch.
Then, as suddenly as he appeared on the scene, he vanished, mist-like, into the ether.
Fulgham played in 88% of the team’s snaps against the Giants in Week 9 but caught just one of five targets for eight yards. He played 96% of the offensive snaps in Week 10, and put up identical statistics from the week before. He played just 52% of the snaps in Week 10 (2 catches for 16 yards) and then never played more than 43% of the snaps in any game the rest of the season.
Over his final eight games, he was targeted 23 times and caught just nine passes for 104 yards and did not find the end zone.
As the Eagles struggled on offense and Carson Wentz was benched in favor of Jalen Hurts, Fulgham’s disappearance from the lineup became a mystery to the casual fan. How could a player dominate the league the way he did over a five week stretch and then fail to even see the field over the last 2+ months?
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Fulgham offered what is almost certainly just a partial explanation.
Travis Fulgham’s understanding of him losing playing time last year was that Alshon Jeffery was back and that was his role. #Eagles— Brandon Lee Gowton (@BrandonGowton) August 4, 2021
Jeffery’s arrival in Week 10 certainly was a factor. As the veteran eased his way back onto the field, he played 27% of the offensive snaps his first week back and 7% in Week 11. Starting in Week 12, Jeffery saw his snap count jump to 49%, 56%, 45% and 62% in Weeks 11-14 before it dropped to 36% in Week 16 (he was inactive for the Tankathon game against WFT in the final week of the season).
There are many people to blame for how things went down with Fulgham at the end of last year, so let us issue a quick flogging to those responsible.
Let’s not sugarcoat it, the receiver himself is not without some blame. Had he put up more production in Weeks 9 and 10, where, again, he combined for 2 catches for 16 yards, he would have made Doug Pederson’s decision more difficult. Fulgham admitted to reporters Wednesday that his practice habits may have been an issue as well.
FULGHAM - “Everyday in practice you want to give 100% effort and that’s what I plan to do.”
REPORTER - “Did you feel like that was an issue, that you weren’t consistent enough in practice last year? Is that something you have to work on?”
FULGHAM - “Yeah, absolutely.”
It’s hard to imagine a player with so little time in the NFL, a player who was claimed by the team in mid-August, cut by the team in early September, survived waivers and then added to the practice squad three days later would be lackadaisical and/or unfocused during practice, but that seems to be the case. If so, it certainly sheds some light on what went down.
But there were on-field reasons, too.
Some context: Yes, Doug Pederson’s preference for Jeffery over Fulgham was a factor. The coach once cited Fulgham’s practice habits as an issue.— Jeff McLane (@Jeff_McLane) August 4, 2021
But defenses were also starting to key on Fulgham and play more man and he struggled some. https://t.co/dqqSkUGkLY
Anytime a receiver breaks out the way Fulgham did, defensive coordinators will try different things to slow him down. One of the ways they did that was to play more man-press, which seemed to have a negative effect on him.
So yes, Travis himself is not without blame.
Picking on the Eagles’ GM is a very popular sport, and let’s be honest, he sure gives the fanbase plenty of ammunition. In this case, it was ridiculous that Jeffery was even on the roster to begin with.
Jeffery was coming off a season in which he played just 10 games and caught 43 balls for 490 yards and four touchdowns. He hurt his foot early in the Birds’ game against the Giants in Week 14 of 2019 and was expected to miss the beginning of last year, but the team held out hope he could be back before Week 6. As a result, the team kept Jeffery on the active roster instead of placing him on the PUP list, which ate up a roster spot for the first nine games of last year.
Frankly, it would have made more sense to simply cut Alshon and give the roster spot to someone else, which would have precluded the need to bench Fulgham in exchange for Jeffery.
Since his dismissal, Eagles fans have heard all the nonsense the front office put their Super Bowl-winning head coach through over the years. Getting called into the boss’ office to explain why the team ran the ball so much in a huge road victory over Green Bay, constantly scrutinizing his play-calling and undermining his decisions regarding his assistant coaches, it now seems clear Pederson was not exactly thrilled to be this team’s head coach last year.
He had new assistant coaches thrust upon him and the relationship between him and QB Carson Wentz had deteriorated to the point the two didn’t speak to each other for long stretches. He was micromanaged in a way no Super Bowl-winning head coach had ever been.
Given that, perhaps it’s not out of left field to think Pederson’s priorities were a little out of whack by the time the end of the 2020 season rolled around. Perhaps he was fed up with Fulgham’s practice habits and decided to plug Jeffery into the lineup out of reverence to the veteran’s status on the team and the role he played in their Super Bowl victory. Pederson should have prioritized youth over an aging, clearly over-the-hill veteran, but he instead chose to go with Jeffery, a player who clearly had nothing left in the tank.
What About 2021?
With training camp in full swing, Fulgham is currently penciled in as a starter on the outside, along with rookie DeVonta Smith. Given the stumbles for former second round pick JJ Arcega-Whiteside, the first year struggles of Jalen Reagor, and the lack of a dependable veteran receiver on the roster, Fulgham will get every opportunity to prove his mid-season blitz was no fluke. Nick Sirianni, a former wide receiver himself, is coaching the wideouts hard, and the hope is Fulgham learned some things at the end of last year.
Mike Clay at ESPN is not exactly projecting a breakout season for Fulgham (10 catches, 132 yards, 1 TD). Yes, those are season-long projected totals. FantasyPros isn’t much more bullish (23 catches for 297 yards, 1 TD). Much will depend on whether Devonta Smith and Jalen Reagor can provide enough production to help keep defenses from focusing all their efforts on him, and some will depend on Jalen Hurts’ progression at QB.
This year, there will be no Alshon Jeffery to bump him out of the starting lineup. If Fulgham doesn’t become the diamond in the rough the team thought they might have found last season, it won’t be because he didn’t get the chance.