Without question, the wide receivers position has been under the spotlight for the Eagles this offseason. With the departure of Jason Avant and DeSean Jackson, coupled with the re-signing of Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, the Eagles have boldly pushed forward at the position following a record-breaking offensive season. Part of the story throughout the offseason when it comes to the Eagles wide receivers has been the specter of the forthcoming NFL Draft, one that is said to be loaded with wide receiver prospects.
A week before he takes charge of the 2014 NFL Draft for the Eagles, general manager Howie Roseman spoke for 50 minutes to the team's assembled media and spent much of time fielding questions about the team's future at wide receiver.
"Well, for us, we have a group of players that we brought back," Roseman said. "We signed Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, those are free agent signings for us. They were on the open market. Those guys are guys that we've added to our team. We added Darren Sproles. I know DeSean had really great production here last year, he had 82 (catches) for 1,300 (yards). Darren Sproles caught 71 balls. We're really excited to see Jeremy in this offense. We think he's an extremely talented guy, a guy who we drafted in the first round, a guy who really fits what we're doing … For us, it's about believing in the guys we have here and, at the same time, being open, keeping our eyes open and looking to improve. I think when you're building a team, it's all about … where we are next year and resources. So we have to make tough decisions. We don't want to be in a position where we can't sign the guys that we've drafted here or that we're going to have to start dismantling the team. We want to try to grow together, and so some of those decisions are hard and, for us, we have to try to figure out where maybe we can get good players and maybe save some money for having room elsewhere going forward."
Specifically in reference to Maclin, Roseman sounded excited about the season to come.
"I think he's an extremely talented guy and he has a great work ethic," Roseman said. "Jeremy's a really good route runner, he has really good hands, he has really good quickness, he has good size, so those are all factors that we think fit in what we're doing out there. He's worked extremely hard, he's here every day, he has a great attitude. He looks forward to the challenge. He's looking forward to showing people what kind of player that he can be and we're excited to have him back … We fully expect him to be ready to go when the season starts."
Another player to watch when it comes to replacing the production left behind by Jackson and Avant is tight end Zach Ertz.
"The encouraging thing for Zach is, when you see him in the building, you can see how much broader he's gotten and how much he's worked on his body. We talk about all the time (him) missing that month (of team activities last year) based on his school schedule, and that's hard. I think you saw him continue to grow throughout the season.
"He's got the ability to be a flexed-out guy. He can play with his hand down, he can play in the slot, he can line up outside. He's a hard guy to cover because he's got really good feet, obviously he's big, he's 6-foot-5, he's got a great feel in the passing game. So you talk about him and Darren Sproles. Darren Sproles, 71 catches last year, his ability to win one-on-one matchups, his ability to play in the slot, play out of the backfield, line up wide. I know when we played the Saints every year; I was worried about where he was going to be. When we made that trade, the first person to come to my office was Billy Davis and he said, 'I know every time I play Darren Sproles, I have to figure out where he is on the field.' So, you get those kind of guys and we've always talked about looking at the skill positions as a total group because, at the end of the day, you're going to have five offensive lineman on the field, you're going to have your quarterback, so who are the other five guys on the field with them? Obviously there's a limited number of guys you can put out there."
Meanwhile, Roseman makes no effort to conceal the relative strength of this year's draft class at the position. Purely because the talent is so deep at wide receiver, Roseman would be surprised if one did not find himself at the top of the Eagles' draft board come selection time in any round.
"When you look at the talent in this draft and when we look at our board about how good the receivers are in this draft, I think there will be a point in this draft, and that could be in the seventh round when we have a guy in the fourth round, that there is going to be a really talented receiver," said Roseman. "I just feel like when you look back at the history of the draft, the wide receiver position always goes later to begin with, and now with the influx of the underclassmen at the wide receiver position, I just think that's how it's going to turn out now. It may not, but I think I said it's likely that we'll come out with at least one; I don't think I said more than one. There are no guarantees."
Here's everything else Roseman had to say about the wide receiver position …
On whether it is more difficult to project the wide receiver position:** "I think it is harder, because when you look back the history of receivers drafted high, the success rate at that position is lower than at other positions. The primary reason is that, and you even see it now with the advent of the spread offense, is that most of the time your third receiver is going to be better than their third cornerback. There's not enough defensive backs to cover these guys, so what defensive coordinators in college football are doing is they are playing softer. You don't see a lot of press coverage. You don't see a lot of the challenging that they get in the National Football League, and that's the hardest thing to project, is how a guys is going to do at the line of scrimmage against press coverage when he's going against a 5-foot-8, 180-pound guy and now he's got to get up against a 6-foot-1, 205-pound guy with 34 inch arms."
On what is the best way to evaluate wide receivers: "One, best competition is always going to be first and foremost, and then figuring out if they're getting open based on their ability or scheme. Then, in contested situations, how are they doing in those situations? "
On whether Ertz takes away some of the urgency that you have to go and get two wide receivers: "I don't feel that way. I'm not sitting here saying we have to get anything in this draft. We have to get good players. We have to get players who will be here and be part of our core and that we're going to look back on in two years and not go, man, we could have found that (player) in August or September (on the waiver wire), why were we in such a panic about it (during the draft)? I don't' feel we're that way at all."
On what are the tiers at the wide receiver position: "I think that the way we do things may be different other people, it may not, but we grade (players) based on what we think they're going to be. It's not necessarily what they're going to do this year because we look at it long term, so how are we projecting them? Obviously when you're projecting them, that takes a little bit of a risk there, so we'll go and we'll say how many Pro Bowl starters we think there are at each position. Sometimes there are none.
"How many really good starters, solid starters, one-position guys, slot receivers only, outside guys, guys who can play inside. When you look at that first tier group of guys, and there's some variation in that first tier, I think you're probably going to look at 10 guys who end up being drafted at least in the first two rounds, and then there's that next level group of solid starters who, you could be sitting there in the fourth round and get a guy who's going be, by our pro definition, a "red starter" in this league, and usually that's hard to find in the fourth or fifth round."
On whether future projections with wide receivers is harder because of scheme: "That's the big part of it, what scheme are they in and then what are you projecting them to be? For us, we look at their body – if they're 6-2 and 185 pounds, can they play at the same speed if we put 10 or 15 pounds on them? Where are they going to go? Are they going to play inside or outside? How do they project in our scheme because what we're looking for from our receivers now is different from what we would look for in a West Coast offense under Coach (Andy) Reid. So that skill set puts part of it into play, but we're not looking for – I mean, we want immediate contributions, we want a great player right now, that would be ideal – but we're not looking at just who's going to be the best player today, but who's going to be the best player three and four years from now."
On what the Eagles are looking for now at the wide receiver position:** "I'm going to talk more generally. I think if you just take the slot receiver in the NFL, you have quicker, smaller guys, and then you have the bigger, more physical guys. So what kind of team are you for your inside receiver? What are you looking for in an outside guy? Are you looking for speed, are you look for size, are you looking for guys in contested areas who can go get the ball, are you looking for guys who get separation down the field, are you looking for guys who win off the line of scrimmage? Those are all things we talk about when we talk about receiver evaluations here, and it's different from an inside guy than an outside guy. We're not looking for the same guy to play the slot as necessarily we are looking for a guy to play the outside. There are certain characteristics we need from a slot wide receiver that are deal-breakers for us."
On whether any of the young receivers are poised to make a leap: "Well, it's up to them. It's a great opportunity. When we see those guys around the building, they know the opportunities in front of them and that we're going to go with what our eyes see. I think that's exciting if you're a young player in this system, to go out and see your ability to play here and to get the reps and to know that we're going to evaluate you based on what you do going forward. All those guys are here for a reason. We had some level of interest in them to bring them into the building, so at that point it's on them and we're going to increase the competition level of that group next week."
On what's more important when scouting wide receivers - is it the game tape or measureables: "Well it's combined. If you're looking at a guy and he ends up running a 4.7 (40-yard dash), and he's dominating, you're worried about his ability to separate at this level. So, what is his trait? Does he have great ball skills? Is he 6-foot-4 and able to go up over defensive backs? Does he win one-on-one situations off the line of scrimmage because he's physical and strong? Those are all the factors that we look at, and it's different for each player. It's going to be different for a guy who's 5-foot-9 than a guy who's 6-foot-5. Again, I think that's one of the things that's hardest to project, because every week you're going against really great defensive backs. So you have to figure out a way, because of the pass rush, so are you going to be able to get open? What are defenses going to look at when they're playing you? Are they just going to say, 'I got that guy, don't worry about him, we're done'? So those are the factors we look at when we're in our draft meetings."