Eagles 2021 training camp preview: Wide receiver
Leading up to training camp (basically whenever there isn’t other news to cover), we’ll take a look at every player on the Philadelphia Eagles’ roster, and how they fit with the team. Today we’ll look at the wide receivers.
Previous training camp previews
First, a look at the depth chart (don’t get too fixated on the X/Z/slot designations, as a bunch of these guys will play in multiple spots):
|X||Travis Fulgham||J.J. Arcega-Whiteside||Jhamon Ausbon|
|Z||DeVonta Smith||Quez Watkins||John Hightower|
|Slot||Jalen Reagor||Greg Ward||Michael Walker|
Given that (a) the Eagles traded up to the tenth overall pick to select Smith, and (b) the roster isn’t exactly flush with wide receiver talent, Smith is not only very likely to start as a rookie, but there’s also a good chance that he’ll immediately become the team’s most targeted player in the passing game.
Playing in the NFL’s version of Triple-A (the SEC), Smith averaged 9 catches for 143 yards and 1.8 TDs per game for Alabama in 2020 on his way to the Heisman trophy. He already has the best hands of any receiver on the roster, and is probably also the team’s best route runner, out of the box. On top of that, he played for two seasons with Jalen Hurts at Bama, and while their on-field, “real game” experience together was limited, there will still be plenty of familiarity there.
The bet here is that barring injury, Smith will lead the team in receptions, yards, and TDs. If that sounds like some sort of monumental achievement for a rookie receiver, it shouldn’t, since the Eagles’ leaders in receiving were as follows in 2020:
• Receptions: Greg Ward, 53
• Yards: Travis Fulgham, 539
• TDs: Greg Ward, 6
Smith is very talented, and he’ll have all kinds of opportunities to rack up big numbers, due to target share, and also the likelihood that the Eagles will be trailing in a lot of games.
The Eagles haven’t given their fans many reasons to care about them in 2021, but DeVonta Smith is certainly a major exception. He represents a reason to keep watching.
After being selected with the 21st overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Reagor had a disappointing rookie season, catching 31 passes for 396 yards (12.8 YPC), and 1 TD. His struggles as a rookie were amplified in a city that has lost patience for underperforming wide receivers, as well as the fact that the Eagles drafted Reagor over Justin Jefferson, a player who was widely rated higher than Reagor prior to the draft, and who had a dominant rookie season, catching 88 passes for 1400 yards and 7 TDs.
Reagor’s rookie season was slowed by injuries, poor quarterback play, and a bad scheme, so excuses can be made for his lack of production, much in the same way excuses were made for his modest production at TCU. However, there were clearly a laundry list of concerns that emerged from Reagor’s 2020 season that cannot be hand-waived away by excuses. He has the talent, but the bad outweighed the good.
Reagor is highly likely to start once again in 2021, playing a combination of the Z, and in the slot. The Eagles’ record drafting players in recent years has not been good, but perhaps equally concerning has been their lack of player development. Reagor is a player who has tools that can be developed. He and the Eagles need to figure out how to unlock them.
If Reagor can make a big jump forward with a clean slate, and Smith is the productive receiver we think he can be, then that would obviously be huge for the Eagles and their offense going forward.
The Eagles claimed Fulgham off of waivers from the Packers late in 2020 training camp. They had actually given him a “starter” grade (that’s a good grade on the Eagles’ grading scale) leading up to the 2019 NFL Draft, kept tabs on him thereafter, and claimed him when opportunity met need.
Fulgham showed something in those final practices leading up to the 2020 season, and he became a priority for the Eagles to retain on the practice squad. He remained on the practice squad for the first three games of the season, continued to perform in practice every day, and when the Eagles suffered a slew of injuries to their receiving corps, Fulgham was called up to the 53-man roster.
He started against the 49ers Week 4, and hauled in a game-winning 42-yard TD reception. He then proceeded to put up big numbers in his next four games against the Steelers, Ravens, Giants, and Cowboys. Fulgham actually led the league in receiving during that five-game stretch, and it looked like the Eagles had lucked their way into a legitimate long-term starting wide receiver.
And then, just as quickly he emerged from out of nowhere, Fulgham went quiet. The Eagles had their bye week after that five-game stretch, and on the other side of the bye, Fulgham would only catch 9 more passes for 104 yards and 0 TDs the rest of the season.
So why did Fulgham lose snaps? Wide receiver coach Aaron Moorehead was asked precisely that earlier this offseason.
“The [five-game stretch] showed me a lot,” Moorehead said. “It showed everybody a lot. With that [success], it also goes with the understanding that now defenses are going to start scheming toward you to stop you. And that for a young player sometimes, him understanding that, it took a little bit.”
“And then, he got nicked up a little bit, and didn’t complain, but he had to play through it. As the season got going, it wore on him a little bit.
“The guy has it. We saw it. Right? We all saw it. It’s in there. And I’m looking forward to seeing Travis and what he does this year. I think that as you saw him progress last year, he kind of hit a little bit of a rut last year, and got out of it.
“If Travis can continue to grow physically, mentally, all those things, he can get himself to be that guy again. And if he does, to be honest, our receiving corps, with Jalen Reagor, and DeVonta Smith, Greg Ward, we can be really, really, really good.”
What went unmentioned there by Moorehead was Alshon Jeffery eating up a big chunk of Fulgham’s snaps upon Jeffery’s return to the lineup. Moorehead was asked if Jeffery’s return stunted Fulgham’s growth. In his answer, Moorehead hinted that Fulgham was perhaps slacking off a bit in practice.
“It was impeccable timing, to say the least,” said Moorehead. “I’ve been a guy where the best guy is going to play. I don’t care if it’s Travis Fulgham, who showed up here the last week of training camp, or it’s Alshon or any other guy. It was the best guy who was going to play.
“Football is a meritocracy. You play what you earn, and that’s every player on the field. At the same time, Alshon was coming back from injury. He had been practicing for three or four weeks, and just hadn’t had a chance to play very much. As he started getting healthy, there was ability to put him and Travis out there together, and there was ability to put them out there separately, and it was important for our football team to have the ability to do that.
“I don’t want to say it stunted Travis. I would say it opened his eyes, like, ‘Hey look, you better come out here and practice every day like your job is on the line or else someone else can take your job.’ As a young player, a second-year player in the league, he was able to take that lesson. I hope he takes it and runs with it in Year 3.”
In my opinion, Fulgham is one of the three most talented receivers on the roster, along with Smith and Reagor. In OTAs, the first-team receivers were Smith, Reagor, and Ward, with Fulgham playing on the outside with the second team unit, so it would appear that they’re making him earn his way into the starting lineup.
That’s fine for now, but if Ward is getting more snaps than a more talented Fulgham during the season, that’s going to be pretty difficult to understand, much like it was when a washed Jeffery was getting more snaps than him down the stretch in 2020.
The bet here is that Smith and Reagor will start, and when the Eagles are in three wide receiver sets, Reagor will move into the slot, with Fulgham manning the X position.
Ward is a good story, and he makes the plays that every NFL receiver should make, which over the last couple of seasons is more than could be said for most of the other receivers on the Eagles’ roster. However, Ward doesn’t have ideal size, or athleticism, he is not a downfield threat, nor is he an explosive weapon after the catch. On 81 career catches, Ward has averaged 8.3 yards per catch, which are running back-like receiving numbers.
Ward is a perfectly fine player to have on the roster as a reserve who also contributes at times on special teams, but he is far from an ideal starting slot receiver. If Fulgham fails to win the No. 3 receiver job away from Ward during camp, that would have to be viewed as a disappointing outcome.
Watkins did not see a target come his way until Week 14 in 2020, against the Saints, and even that “target” was essentially a handoff on a jet sweep. It wasn’t until Week 15 that Watkins had a memorable moment, when he caught a screen pass, spun to the outside, and took it to the house.
*It really wasn’t controversial. Doug Pederson went for it plenty of times in similar situations throughout his coaching career in Philly.
We took a deep-dive look at Watkins’ 2020 season earlier this offseason, if you’re interested in that.
Arcega-Whiteside had a good preseason in 2019 and a good training camp in 2020. But in real games, he has come up small. JJAW’s rookie season was marred by mistakes, most notably a drop that cost the Eagles a game against the Lions. He finished with 10 catches for 169 yards and a TD. In 2020, he was more of an afterthought, as he made 4 catches for 85 yards and no TDs.
He’ll be back in camp in 2021, and nobody will care if he has another good summer. Many suggested that the Eagles should maybe try him at tight end. He is a willing blocker and (in theory) possesses some tight end traits. I don’t think that’s crazy idea, but it appears that JJAW will be staying at receiver.
One notable observation from OTAs was that Arcega-Whiteside was lining up in the slot with the second-team offense. Arcega-Whiteside is highly unlikely to live up to his draft position in the second round at this point, but if he can find a niche role as a “big slot” who can take advantage of smaller corners, the Eagles could maybe salvage some value out of him.
Hightower was a camp standout in 2020, but his play in practice did not carry over into the real games. Because of his impressive camp, the Eagles gave Hightower a decent amount of playing time early in the season in 2020, and even worked shot plays into the game plan specifically for him. But by the second half of the season, Hightower had fallen far down the depth chart, playing just 53 snaps in the final eight games, and he was a healthy scratch in three games.
Earlier this offseason, we took a deep-dive look at Hightower’s rookie season. It’s not pretty. On the season, Hightower was targeted 29 times. He had 10 catches, 167 yards, 0 TDs, three drops, only five first downs, and five passes intended for Hightower were intercepted. When Eagles quarterbacks targeted Hightower in 2020, they had a QB rating of 15.2.
Looking ahead to 2021, the Eagles’ new staff could not have been impressed with Hightower’s tape when they watched the wide receivers, and sure enough, Hightower was not with the first, or second-team offenses in OTAs. DeVonta Smith, Jalen Reagor, and Greg Ward were with the 1’s, while Travis Fulgham, Quez Watkins, and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside were with the 2’s.
Hightower was a 24-year old rookie (he turned 25 in May), so he’s on the older side for a second-year player. He’s actually the third-oldest receiver on the roster, though obviously, it’s an extremely young group.
Heading into training camp this offseason, Hightower is probably the seventh receiver in the pecking order. Because he had a strong camp as a rookie, it’s fair to wonder if another good camp won’t help him as much, since he gave the staff and the front office a false positive during the summer last year. The bet here is that he’s probably on the outside looking in at the moment, particularly because he played zero special teams snaps last season, and will have to emphatically outperform some of the receivers ahead of him to earn a roster spot on the final 53.
Walker appeared in seven games for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2019. He has two career catches for 15 yards, as well as 3 career punt returns (4.3 YPR) and 18 career kick returns (22.8 YPR).
At Boston College from 2015-2018, Walker had 71 career catches for 847 yards (11.9 YPC) and 5 TDs in four seasons. He had 106 career kick returns, and 48 punt returns, with one punt return TD.
He’ll play in the slot in camp, but his only chance of making the roster is if he’s amazing on the return teams during the preseason games.
Ausbon is an undrafted free agent with some decent size, at 6’2, 217. He led Texas A&M in receiving in 2019, with a stat line of 66-872-5, and then opted out in 2020. At Texas A&M’s pro day, he ran a 4.71 40. He doesn’t possess much in the way of dynamic traits, but his value could perhaps be inside against smaller slot corners. If he can catch the ball well in camp, Ausmon’s ceiling is probably “bigger Greg Ward.”
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