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Who Steps Up To Fill Slot Receiver Role?

Posted Aug 12, 2017

Position flexibility is the key, says head coach Doug Pederson, as the Eagles now go about the task of replacing the 75 catches, six touchdowns, and 12 yards per reception Jordan Matthews produced for the offense in his three seasons here. It won’t necessarily be one person asked to put up those numbers, Pederson insists ...

Position flexibility is the key, says head coach Doug Pederson, as the Eagles now go about the task of replacing the 75 catches, six touchdowns, and 12 yards per reception Jordan Matthews produced for the offense in his three seasons here. It won’t necessarily be one person asked to put up those numbers, Pederson insists.

“We move so many guys in and out of that position that it’s just kind of by design of the offense, the scheme of the offense,” Pederson said on Saturday after a long 2:30 practice at the NovaCare Complex. “With the versatility of some of our running backs that we have with (Darren) Sproles and (Donnel) Pumphrey, we can utilize that position and create some matchups against a defense. The versatility of the position and the flexibility that we have as personnel to put guys in that spot is a benefit.”

Don’t expect, then, a singular player to step in. But trading away Matthews does put a focus on the rest of the wide receivers on this roster.

Those expected to get chances to play the slot say they’re ready for the moment.

“It’s a great opportunity for me,” Nelson Agholor said. “I feel great. It doesn’t change my mindset, because every day I’m going to just keep working hard and let the chips fall where they may. At the end of the day I’m controlling my effort and my focus. Nothing is going to be handed to me. I know that. I’ve got to go out and earn it.”

Agholor played out of the slot in his final season at USC and parlayed tremendous success (104 receptions, 1,313 yards, and 12 touchdowns) into becoming the Eagles’ first-round draft pick. In the offense here, receivers coach Mike Groh expects his players to know all three wide receiver spots. The Eagles move the pieces around to create favorable matchups, so the slot is not a foreign concept to any of the receivers, and for that matter the tight ends and the running backs.

“We learn to play it all,” Agholor said. “We’ve going to be in there at some points, anyway.”

Agholor isn’t the only candidate inside, but he’s got more experience working the crevices of the defense from the slot. Consistency is the goal for Agholor, who has struggled with that part of the game in his two NFL seasons. But he’s played well in the spring and summer, showing much more confidence and flat-out speed and quickness in the offense.

It’s also possible that rookie Mack Hollins, fresh off his four-catch, 64-yard preseason debut that included an impressive 38-yard catch-and-run from quarterback Carson Wentz on which Hollins used two stiff-arms to take the play to the house, will get an extended look. Hollins is a big target at 6-4, and he snatches passes away from his body and has been extremely impressive since the Eagles selected him the fourth round this past April.

“I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing, playing as hard as I can every day at practice, trying to make plays and wherever I end up, I end up, ” Hollins said. “It’s not going to stop me from working. My level of comfort from the slot is the same as it is outside. I work as well in the slot as I do outside.”

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That the Eagles traded Matthews speaks to the confidence they have in a wide receiver group that has had an overhaul in the offseason. Agholor, Hollins, and Bryce Treggs are likely to get the majority of the looks for the rest of the way in Training Camp and through the three preseason games. And the coaching staff will use Sproles out the slot, hoping to get him lined up against an overmatched linebacker. Tight end Zach Ertz and even Trey Burton can run routes from the slot and beat safeties and smaller defensive backs.

The possibilities are exciting.

Of course, the Eagles also expect that free agent signees Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith will bring the dynamic element of having a go-to receiver and a legitimate vertical threat to the offense that has been missing since the days of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.

“We have players who are going to step in and make plays,” Ertz said. “In this offense, you don’t just rely on one player. They want to move us around and get the best matchups possible and have some bigger guys, some faster guys, and depth. It’s an opportunity for all of us to do our part in the offense.”

Remarkable, isn’t it, how the Eagles have given the wide receiver position a facelift? They have some young players, including the likes of Marcus Johnson who returned to practice after missing Thursday’s preseason game with a hamstring injury, who now have the chance to blossom very quickly. To trade a player who has been as productive as Matthews signals a collective confidence in the weapons still on the roster.

“Inside or outside, wherever you play and whatever your responsibility is, you’ve got to be ready to go and produce,” Agholor said. “That is how we all feel. That’s the job description. There’s a lot of competition here. That doesn’t change with Jordan gone. You have to be at your best every single day here.”

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