The combinations have been dizzying through this post-draft practice period. Six receivers deep, all of whom can probably start in the NFL, the Eagles are trotting out all sorts of formations and personnel packages as they work through the base installation of their offense this spring. And, yes, the pads aren't on. And yes, there is no tackling. Defenders are handcuffed. All of that is true. And so is this: The Eagles have the best group of wide receivers, one through six, that they have had in the Andy Reid Era and, maybe, ever.
There are a lot of different ways this is all going to shake out, and the true verdict on these receivers won't come until the games count in September. But so far, the Eagles have to be pleased with the group and the versatility it brings to the table.
Why the optimism? Certainly, the addition of Jeremy Maclin in the draft upgrades the talent level significantly, and Maclin is making steady strides this spring. He has the kind of top-end ceiling that excites you, even if he is still a ways away from realizing that potential. But you see it with Maclin. In each of these last few days of practice at the NovaCare Complex, Maclin has made more and more catches in the "team" portion of the drills. You see his routes sharpening, and his confidence growing, and his gulps of yardage in the passing game.
Maclin played inside at Missouri, and the Eagles are giving him so much work on the outside and making his work routes, rather than do what he did at Missouri, and that was to work the concept of the offense and get to spots. Maclin is much more detailed in his route work now, a total step up from the first-round pick who stepped on the practice field for the first time after the draft.
Maclin complements the rest of this group, which was already pretty darn good. DeSean Jackson has a chance to prove in his second NFL season that he is capable of being a go-to receiver in the offense. After a 62-catch rookie campaign, Jackson has to bring even more consistency and more big plays to stake his claim among the upper echelon in the league. It's what he wants, to be the best. With a strong off-season behind him, with a very determined effort in the team's conditioning program, Jackson has clearly improved. He always had the confidence and the will, but now he has a season of knowledge in the offense and in the league, and his next step will be a critical one for the Eagles.
Watching Kevin Curtis on Monday in practice was also important in the scheme of things here. He is on track to be ready for training camp, completely healed from his sports hernia surgeries and ready to give the Eagles that deep and intermediate threat on the outside. Jason Avant is the slot receiver, and a darn good one at that with his toughness, his route running, his hands and his strength. Good player. Very good player, and the Eagles are going to use him a lot.
The combinations continue with Hank Baskett, who is a big body, a good over-the-middle receiver and one heck of a special teams player. Baskett has to find a role here and the reality -- a pun, for anyone who watched Kendra on Sunday night -- is that the Eagles can use Baskett and get some very advantageous matchups.
The sixth receiver -- although he is probably much higher on the depth chart -- is Reggie Brown. Cue the eye rolls from the skeptical Eagles fans. Truth is, though, that Brown has bounced back from a disappointing 2008 season to get healthy and play fantastic football this spring. As has happened throughout these camps, Brown was sensational on Monday. His highlight catch was a diving grab of a Donovan McNabb pass deep down the left side. McNabb led Brown perfectly, and he lay out and brought the ball in on his fingertips. Great catch. Great play. And an encouraging moment when counting the depth, calculating the talent and daydreaming about what could be for this wide receiver corps.
What the coaches ultimately decide to do with the personnel is still to be sorted out. Jackson is going to be on the field and is going to see his share of passes. Maybe more than his share. But the Eagles are also going to find ways to get the ball to Curtis, and Avant and Brown, Baskett and, yes, Maclin. The Eagles have size, they have speed, they have youth and experience.
It's OK to be excited about the possibilities. You will see them all up close at Lehigh when training camp begins. You will judge for yourselves. The coaches will learn more every day. They will see if some of the other receivers, like Brandon Gibson, Shaheer McBride and Danny Amendola, can make the grade and push the top six.
Part of the experiment of this spring is to get a long look at the wide receivers group. The Eagles like what they've seen, and they hope the best is to come with this young and talented group.