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Focused On WR And The Picture There

Posted Mar 17, 2015

It is an obvious question that the Eagles will address: With Jeremy Maclin gone to Kansas City, how does the offense replace his production from the wide receiver group? ...

It is an obvious question that the Eagles will address: With Jeremy Maclin gone to Kansas City, how does the offense replace his production from the wide receiver group?

In this second week of free agency, with the wide receiver group dwindling -- Stevie Johnson signed with San Diego on Tuesday, leaving Dwayne Bowe, Michael Crabtree, Greg Jennings, Hakeem Nicks and Denarius Moore as the only "name" receivers still on the board -- it's fair to wonder the Eagles' course of action to bolster a position that contains five players on the current roster.

Riley Cooper, Jordan Matthews, Josh Huff, Will Murphy and Quron Pratt are the only wide receivers on the team's roster at the moment.  Jeff Maehl is an exclusive-rights free agent, so if the Eagles want him back, he'll be back to compete for a roster spot.

Given that the Eagles carry nine or 10 receivers generally on a 90-man roster and then cut that down to five or six when the roster is reduced to 53 players, it's clear that the team is going to add to the position.

But how high of a priority is wide receiver? How good do the Eagles feel about what they have now? How about those 85 catches, 1,300-plus yards and 10 touchdowns that Maclin produced last season?

Let's examine what's on the roster. Cooper is a big body, he has good hands and in 2013 he averaged 17.8 yards per catch and scored 8 touchdowns. Last season, the yards-per-catch number dipped to 10.5 yards and Cooper scored three touchdowns, but he set a career high with 55 catches. Cooper's numbers are superior in the most recent seasons to any of the aforementioned free agents, and the Eagles want to see Cooper with Sam Bradford at quarterback and with a deep and stocked backfield. Cooper can get down the field, he can use his body to create separation and he's able to move the chains in the short passing game.

Matthews was an instant contributor after the team made him a second-round draft choice last May. Working primarily out of the slot, Matthews ranked second on the team with 67 receptions, 872 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns. It's possible that Matthews will see more time on the outside as his experience grows. He handled everything the NFL threw at him in 2014 and didn't flinch.

Huff parlayed an outstanding career at Oregon into a third-round draft selection last May and showed flashes of his talent. He caught eight passes as a sporadic contributor to the passing game, but Huff shined on special teams in the kickoff-return game, averaging 29.6 yards on 14 returns, including a 107-yard touchdown against Tennessee to open the game. To make this offensive equation work, Huff needs to be prepared to make an impact in his second Eagles season. He's got the measurables and he's someone that head coach Chip Kelly knows well from their time together at Oregon.

A big leap from both Matthews and Huff would mean so much for the offense both in the short term and the long term. The Eagles used second- and third-round picks on them, respectively, in 2014. And while Matthews quickly moved into the lineup after a strong summer, Huff suffered a shoulder injury in the second preseason game against New England and was inactive for the opening four games of the regular season. He never completely caught up, but the flashes were revealing for what Huff can become: Extremely explosive, fearless, tough and with a large dose of whole-field speed.

Beyond those three, there is very little experience. Neither Murphy nor Pratt, both of whom were on the practice squad last season, have played in a regular-season game. Maehl played a season in Houston and two in Philadelphia and has nine career receptions in 27 games.

The Eagles are going to add firepower to the position. The question is how they're going to do it. How much value do the current unrestricted free agents have at this point for a team that has already allocated considerable resources to free agency? The draft is said to be deep with receiver talent, but how much of a priority the position? Will the Eagles use a first-round draft pick on a wide receiver for the first time since they selected Maclin in 2009? Is there enough talent to pick receivers in the later rounds and hope they contribute as rookies?

The good news is that it's never been easier for a rookie receiver to make an impact. Players are coming into the league more polished than they've ever been, and the emphasis on the no-contact rules 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage allowed for an all-time high in production level collectively for rookie wide receivers in 2014.

There are cries of "Who is going to catch the football?" out there, but know that the Eagles trust what they have in house now, expect to add to the group and believe that head coach Chip Kelly will never shortchange his team offensively. He knows what he wants and he knows what he needs.

There is no doubt that the Eagles must replace the numbers that Maclin had last season. They're going to rely on the wide receivers, yes, as well as on their tight ends -- Brent Celek, Zach Ertz, Trey Burton -- and a trio of running backs established as pass catchers in the league. Maybe, just maybe, we'll see Darren Sproles displaced more in the offensive formation than he was a season ago. Sproles caught 40 passes in 2014, his fewest since the 2008 campaign. Maybe the Eagles can get him more involved in 2015 as they create favorable matchups.

It's an open book at the moment. More work needs to be done. The Eagles are evaluating all of their options as free agency slows to a trickle and the focus turns more and more toward the April 30-May 2 NFL Draft.

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