To say the Eagles' wide receiver picture has changed significantly in the matter of an offseason is to appreciate just how top-to-bottom different the room is on a daily basis. From free agency, through the NFL Draft, and with internal improvement, the wide receiver group is, arguably, the most improved position on the roster.
"Pretty accurate statement," head coach Doug Pederson said.
Signing Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in free agency, drafting Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson in April, and having players like Nelson Agholor and some of the other holdovers step up in the spring give the Eagles a sense of excitement and confidence about the wide receivers as a whole.
"I'm really pleased with where we are here at the end of minicamp and going into the summer and into Training Camp," wide receivers coach Mike Groh said. "We've got a really strong group, competitive group and I like the energy level that these guys brought each and every day. They were true pros. They went about their business the right way in the classroom, took the coaching to the field. I saw improvement each and every day."
Jeffery, in an impressive spring, was everything the Eagles said he would be with his huge catch radius, his ability to go up and catch the football at its highest point, use his body to create space, and have sticky hands to go along with good route running skills.
In Chicago, working with Groh, Jeffery had the two best seasons of his career in 2013 and 2014 with 89 receptions and 85 receptions, respectively, and scored a combined 17 touchdowns in those two seasons. In 2015 and 2016, Jeffery's health suffered, he was suspended four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and the production just wasn't there.
So the Jeffery the Eagles are seeing, on a one-year contract, is in the best shape of his life, is highly motivated, and clearly feels confident and very much wanted in this offense and with this coaching staff and locker room.
His relationship with Groh is a huge exclamation point.
"I love Coach," Jeffery said. "He knows how to reach his players and make us all better. He's tough, but he's fair, and that's all you can ask. We are on the same page. We see eye to eye."
Said Pederson of Jeffery at the end of the mandatory minicamp: "I think he can be a special player. He's obviously got the big-skill traits that you want in a wide receiver and he and Carson (Wentz) are really beginning to get on the same page in the passing game. I think the sky is the limit for him. We will manage him through Training Camp and try to get him to the regular season (healthy).
"He's a special player."
Smith, who Pederson said "has some speed, has some juice. Smart guy," is a key player in the equation, of course. The Eagles lacked explosiveness in the vertical passing game last season. The passing game can now challenge defenses and keep safeties out of the box with Smith's burst and with Jeffery's catch-and-run abilities.
to continue as a highly productive slot receiver. Matthews missed a large chunk of the spring workouts rehabbing his knee back to top health, and he expects to be ready for camp. Suddenly, Matthews isn't the primary option, as he was last season. And that could work to Matthews' favor as he works in winnable matchups in the middle of the field.
Nelson Agholor responded to the challenge of a must-have spring by playing good football, much of it out of the slot with Matthews sidelined. Agholor has responded well to Groh's ways, and he's playing relaxed, aggressive, and fast football.
"I'm very confident," Pederson said, "that Nelson can continue this through Training Camp and on into the regular season. The talent is clearly there. He's shown that in the spring. He has been very explosive."
Those four receivers sit atop the wide receiver ladder, but the Eagles have more. Hollins is a big-bodied receiver with strong hands. Gibson, inconsistent catching the football for much of the spring but trending in the right direction late in the minicamp, is a burner who needs to refine his game. Of course, the Eagles have young NFL veterans like Dorial Green-Beckham and Paul Turner and Bryce Treggs hopeful to win a roster spot.
Groh has made a difference in his short time here. He has a relationship of trust with his players and he sees himself as a "teacher" whose job is to "teach these guys to be the very best version of themselves."
All of the optimism is real, yes, but it is also tempered with the understanding that a whole new challenge awaits in camp when the pads go on and the intensity is kicked up a notch or three. Can the receivers still impress then? Just how ready will this group be to produce big plays and score touchdowns when the regular season begins?
"There's a whole lot of talent here," Matthews said. "It's our job to work with Coach Groh and take what he's teaching us out to the field every day. If we just concentrate on our jobs and get better every day, we're going to be just fine."