There is a lot of mystery regarding the 2013 Eagles. How will Chip Kelly's offense work in the NFL? Who will be the quarterback? What will it be like watching the Eagles run elements of a 3-4 defense for the first time in decades? Just about every part of the team has some level of intrigue.
One position that could be surprisingly interesting is wide receiver. It is easy to assume that
Chip Kelly would caution you not to assume anything. He wants competition. Jackson, Maclin and Avant will not be given jobs. They will have to earn them.
Kelly has revamped the receiver corps since taking over. He added big players like
The receivers are dealing with a lot of changes. First and foremost is the change to an offense that will embrace the running game. Andy Reid was a passing coach. Kelly wants to run the ball and one of the things he emphasizes is receivers who block. This is an area where the Eagles were deficient in 2012 (and before that). Under Kelly, you block or you don't play. Simple as that. Cooper was the Eagles best blocking receiver so he'll love this becoming a more highly regarded skill. Jackson is small. Kelly doesn't expect him to dominate defensive backs. Good effort will suffice, and that is something Jackson has done well at times. Maclin is the one who must really step up his game in this area. He's got the potential to be a very good blocker. Kelly will expect good results from him.
Kelly isn't just giving lip service in this regard. You can see from his actions that he wants bigger, stronger players. Benn can be a very good blocker. Momah was a solid blocker in college and has the size to be outstanding. Not only will blocking be crucial in the run game, but it will be important on wide receiver screens and other quick pass plays. Blocking is a must in the Kelly offense.
Another change will be the use of option routes. Receivers must read the defensive back covering them and be able to adjust the route according the the player's position and the coverage the defense uses. This all happens in a matter of seconds. It becomes extremely tricky when you realize that the quarterback is also reading the defensive backs and must be on the same page as the receiver. Size is good. Speed is good. You also better be smart if you want to play receiver for Chip Kelly.
There is a place for smaller receivers in the offense. Kelly wants guys who can catch short passes and then make something happen. Jackson has the potential to do this, although he's not as elusive as some think. Most of Jackson's big plays come from his explosive speed. Johnson is probably the most elusive receiver. He showed the ability to make defenders miss last year as a rookie. Johnson could be a player to watch. He's playing more confidently this year. He's bigger and stronger, but kept his quickness. I can't wait to see Johnson in Training Camp.
Maclin isn't small, but he does have some elusiveness. He also has good speed and quickness. In 2011, Maclin caught a screen against Atlanta and ran it in 36 yards for a touchdown. He can make plays in space. For some reason, that wasn't happening last year. Maclin had a career low in terms of yards per catch (just 12.4). Maclin is a free agent after the 2013 season so he'll be playing with a sense of urgency to impress the Eagles and any other potential suitors. That may help bring out the best in him.
Avant is one player that it is tough to get a read on. He is good on the field and great off it. He will block all day long. He runs great routes and knows how to get open. He won't complain if he only gets one pass thrown his way. Avant has outstanding hands and is a reliable, tough player. Unfortunately, Avant is an odd fit for Kelly's offense. Avant moves the chains, but isn't really a playmaker. He only has 10 touchdown catches in seven years. He only has two plays in his career that went for 40 or more yards. Maybe Kelly will decide that Avant's leadership and polished skill set will make him a good player to keep around. I just don't think you can assume that will happen. For the first time in a while, Avant is under the gun to play well and impress the coaches. At last week's OTAs, Avant actually saw some snaps at defensive back. I don't know exactly what to make of that.
I have to wonder if Cooper was grinning from ear to ear when he found out Kelly was hired. Reid didn't do a lot of rotating with his receivers. He used Cooper here and there, but really it took someone getting hurt for him to get a lot of snaps. Kelly will mix and match his receivers more. Cooper has a golden opportunity here. He needs to take advantage of it. Cooper has the skills to be a good role player. I don't know that he will ever be a full-time starter. Cooper must show the ability to consistently get open and he must cut down on drops. 2013 is huge for Cooper's future. He can have a breakout season, but first he must make the team and earn regular playing time.
Momah is a mystery player. He's huge and had a good workout at his Pro Day. Will that athleticism show up on an NFL field? There is no guarantee that he'll make the team, but Kelly does love his size. Momah needs to play big. It drives me nuts when big receivers play small. I think this was a weakness for Hank Baskett. He wanted to be Marvin Harrison when his idol should have been Harold Carmichael. Speaking of Carmichael, he can help tutor Momah on how to be good and to take advantage of his size. Momah will need to stand out as a blocker and special teams player to win a spot. He is a former defensive player so he could shine in those roles.
Benn is one of the biggest Eagles receivers at 6-2, 220 pounds. He might also be the strongest. He had a 37-inch vertical jump at the 2010 Scouting Combine, which shows lower body explosion. He did 20 reps on the bench press, which shows upper body strength. Put on the game tape and you'll see Benn using his size and strength whether as a receiver or as a blocker. He is tough and physical. Early reports say he's been getting looks with the starting offense. I thought Benn was going to be an NFL star when he came out of Illinois. I saw a lesser version of Anquan Boldin. That hasn't panned out, but Benn is in a good situation and can get his career on the right track in 2013. He will play if he earns the reps. Benn isn't a lock to make the team, but I think the Eagles like him more than some people realize.
Shepard is probably more of a developmental prospect. He has the skills to be a good player in the Kelly offense, but Shepard has to show that he can handle being a receiver in the NFL. He didn't fully develop at LSU, for a variety of reasons. Shepard has a good combination of size, ability and athleticism. He lacks polished football skills. It is possible that Shepard will learn quickly and earn a spot this year. He could be perfect for the practice squad, though. That would allow him to get confident and comfortable before seeing game action. Shepard's value is the fact he can play in the slot or outside. He can be used as a runner and receiver. He has the potential to be a good kick/punt returner. He has playmaking potential. Kelly loves guys who can make things happen. Shepard can do that, but first he must learn how to run routes, get open and catch the ball consistently. He is a project, but one with good upside.
Don't overlook Salas and Cunningham. Salas caught 27 passes for the Rams in 2011. He has the potential to be a solid slot receiver. Cunningham is a player I liked a lot coming out of Michigan State in the spring of 2012. He was on the practice squad after getting cut by the Dolphins. He isn't huge, but plays big.
I really think all 10 of the receivers mentioned above have the chance to earn jobs this year.