Once the 2019 season was over, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside left the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia and returned to his much quieter, slower-paced hometown of Roebuck, South Carolina and was met with multiple questions from his family about how his rookie campaign went.
Arcega-Whiteside was brutally honest in his answer.
"I wasn't good enough."
There wasn't much else Arcega-Whiteside could say. There was no way to sugarcoat catching only 10 passes for 169 yards and one touchdown, far below what was expected of him when the Eagles selected him in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft. To be fair, Arcega-Whiteside was not expected to be a major contributor to the Eagles' offense in Year 1, but injuries to the wide receiver corps forced the former Stanford Cardinal to learn as he went.
However, the NFL is not a league where sympathy is handed out in abundance and Arcega-Whiteside did not receive a morsel of it in 2019. He simply wasn't good enough and he knows it.
Arcega-Whiteside revealed this to reporters during a video conference Thursday, which also featured defensive tackle Malik Jackson, who also endured his share of valleys in 2019 after playing in only one game before suffering a season-ending foot injury.
Both Jackson and Arcega-Whiteside expressed the same sentiment Thursday: 2019 was a minor setback on the road to a major comeback in 2020.
Unlike Arcega-Whiteside, Jackson has shown in the past what he is capable of. He was a key cog in the dominant Denver Broncos defense that won a Super Bowl in the 2015 season and was voted to the Pro Bowl after the 2017 season as a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But Jackson's dominant play feels like a distant memory, as he received less playing time in 2018 and spent the majority of 2019 watching Eagles games with a boot on his foot. Jackson plans on reminding people just how talented he truly is, though, in 2020.
"I'm not going to say they forgot about me, but I definitely have some ground to make up and make people remember," Jackson told reporters.
One major reason for Jackson's talent is his versatility, as he can play on the interior defensive line and on the edge. He doesn't view himself playing on the edge on a consistent basis but is willing to pitch in and help the team wherever he is needed.
"I'm very much a team player and whatever coach calls, I'm in there," he said.
Arcega-Whiteside suffered his own share of injuries in 2019 but managed to play through them. Nagging injuries weren't the only thing ailing him during his rookie year. Adapting to life in the NFL was a major hurdle for him, too.
"That just happens to some people," Arcega-Whiteside explained. "Some people get in the NFL, things are moving fast, and it's hard to keep up. Some people ball out their first year. I look back at it and I'm like I'm not even the same guy, so I'm not even going to worry about what happened last year."
He admitted that he spent a lot of his rookie year deep inside his own head thinking about what he had to and trying too hard to be perfect. The result was lackluster play. Arcega-Whiteside said Thursday that he doesn't even recognize the player he was last season, as he has completely changed mentally and physically.
After last season ended, Arcega-Whiteside hit the reset button and took some time away from football to travel and hangout with his family. Eventually, his rest and relaxation period came to an end and it was time put in work for 2020. And he put in lots of it.
According to Arcega-Whiteside, he routinely put in seven-hour days improving his body. He would start his day by running for two hours with his track coach. Then he'd eat lunch before lifting weights. He'd then do hot yoga, eat dinner, and do some pool workouts before finishing up by catching passes on his personal JUGS machine that he purchased. There were no social media updates, no excuses, just work.
"I was at home, but I wasn't really at home," he said.
Fortunately for Arcega-Whiteside, he comes from an understanding family of athletes, who supported him in his pursuit of excellence.
"They knew what I went through last year and they knew how much better I could be, and I knew that as well, so it was like a team effort," Arcega-Whiteside said.
After all of the work and fine-tuning, Arcega-Whiteside believes the difference between the 2019 version of him and now is like night and day. He has a better grasp of the playbook, feels lighter on his feet, and is prepared to play up to his potential in Year 2.
"Around this time last year, I'm trying to learn all of the plays, learn how they're getting done, try to find chemistry with Carson (Wentz), learn how everything works in the NFL," he said. "Second time around, shoot, I hate to say that I know all of the plays because obviously there's going to be a day or two where I have a mental error, but I'm pretty confident in the plays."
"I don't go into practice with the script in my hand trying to memorize the plays that I have," he added. "I'm in the huddle, you call the play, I know what I got to do. Now I can play faster, I can play more confidently, and show everybody what I can do instead of trying to do the right thing."
"We had a lot of conversations this offseason through our virtual meetings and things like that of just trying to help clean up some things from a technical standpoint that I think will help him this season," Wide Receivers Coach Aaron Moorehead recently said of Arcega-Whiteside.
Jackson didn't spend the offseason getting away from football like Arcega-Whiteside did. He had plenty of time to do that when he was on Injured Reserve during the season. However, Jackson's time away from the game was a bit of an eye-opener for him, as it provided him time to ponder what life outside of football really has to offer.
"I'm 30 now. I understand I've been playing this game for a long time, so really it was able to allow me to be a dad and see what that's truly about and try to find myself and see what hobbies I like," Jackson said.
"I've been doing this pretty much my whole life, so I didn't even know what I like to do, what made me smile," he added. "It was nice to find things like that out. I never want to take a break, but to have to take a break and then to just embrace it and Coach Pederson allowing me to step away and kind of collect myself and not be here, it really helped me I think become a total person."
"I wasn't retired, I know I still had a job, but it was still nice to kind of take a step back and understand just who I am and what I like to do."
Jackson is back in the swing of doing what he loves to do and that is play football, but there is a lot of competition waiting for him in his return. First on the list is free agent acquisition Javon Hargrave, but there's also Hassan Ridgeway, Anthony Rush, and Raequan Williams, who are all young and hungry. With that said, the Eagles believe in Jackson and what he is capable of.
"He's a really skilled pass rusher," Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz said of Jackson recently. "He's got great use of hands. He's a really smart player and he's got great length."
Arcega-Whiteside is facing even arguably even stiffer competition in the form of rookies Jalen Reagor, John Hightower, and Quez Watkins. Not to mention incumbents Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, and Greg Ward. However, Arcega-Whiteside believes the competition will bring out the best in the young wideouts and is willing to help the newcomers so that they don't return to their respective hometowns in the same way he did after 2019.