After looking at quarterback and the backfield, the next spot on our training camp preview positional tour is wide receiver. Five members of the 2011 Eagles return at the position, along with one new draft pick and a slew of other roster-challengers. What are the key questions you need to pay attention to? Let's find out …
1. Will Jeremy Maclin Break Out?
Maclin, the 2009 first-round pick, has been mentioned all offseason long as the most likely Eagle to make "the leap" in 2012, and for good reason. For one, the time is right, as his draft classmate LeSean McCoy ascended to stardom last season. Maclin, 24, has also been steadily improving since making an impact in his rookie season. Despite missing three games in 2011, Maclin lead the Eagles in receptions and also led the team in receiving yards-per-game. Based on his per-game numbers, Maclin would have caught 77.5 passes for 1,057 yards over a 16-game season. As K.C. Joyner mentioned in his explanation of why the Eagles are the team to beat in the NFC East, Maclin is as well-rounded a receiver as they come. He was one of only four receivers in the league last year to post a yards-per-attempt over 8.0 on shorts passes and a 10.0-or-better YPA on deep passes. Only Mike Wallace, Victor Cruz and Julio Jones joined Maclin in that company. All of that, of course, came on the heels of a tumultuous offseason for Maclin in which he was stricken by a mystery illness, thought at times to be Lymphoma, that sapped him of his weight and strength.
Fully fit and decidedly motivated, Maclin has been working hard this offseason to prepare himself for the year ahead. Pair that with what promises to be a newly focused DeSean Jackson, and Maclin should have his fair share of opportunities to get open. If all goes according to plan, the Eagles will have themselves two players worthy of the No. 1 receiver designation, and opposing defenses will have themselves a tough time devising ways of controlling the Eagles' aerial attack.
2. How Much Will Marvin McNutt Push Riley Cooper?
Cooper, a fifth-round pick of the Eagles in 2010, has 23 catches for 431 yards to his credit through two seasons in the NFL. Those numbers may not pop off the screen, but don't forget that he's been competing for touches and playing time with the likes of Maclin, Jackson and Jason Avant, not to mention Brent Celek and McCoy. The 6-3, 222-pound Cooper is impressive physically, and has shown the ability to make plays downfield – eight of Cooper's 23 career catches have gone for over 20 yards. But jobs are never safe in the NFL, and the Eagles used a sixth-round pick in April's NFL Draft on McNutt because they believed he was the best player on the board.
McNutt is the career leader in almost all wide receiver categories for the Iowa Hawkeyes, despite coming to the team as a quarterback. At 6-3, 216, McNutt too is a bigger receiver who hopes to make an impact in the red zone. But he'll have his work cut out for him if he's going to push Cooper, who has the benefit of two NFL seasons and his own first full offseason now under his belt. McNutt is certainly the underdog in this bout, especially when you also factor in Cooper's ability to contribute positively on special teams. Of course, there may be a place for both players as the Eagles have been willing to keep five or six wide receivers on the roster under Andy Reid.
3. Will Anyone Else Surprise In Camp?
You'll notice there's no question here about Jason Avant, because he may be the Eagles' steadiest player. Jackson will be a player to watch for sure as he looks to bounce back from a disappointing 2011 season, but that it well-tread territory. Training camp is an opportunity for some of the "fringe" players on the roster to make their impression felt, and few positions will have more opportunity to do so than wide receiver, where the ball will be thrown around throughout camp. Just ask Chad Hall, who surprised everyone two summers ago with an impressive training camp, earning his way onto the practice squad, and, eventually, the active roster. Hall will be back in Lehigh to defend his turf, but there will be a few other players looking to make their mark felt.
Undrafted rookie Damaris Johnson, 5-8, 175, out of Tulsa is the NCAA's all-time leader in all-purpose yardage and kick return yardage. The diminutive Johnson made a strong impression, even prompting praise from Michael Vick, during the spring passing camps, but that won't mean anything once the pads go on. Can the speedy Johnson still make an impression when he's navigating the open field of hard-hitting defenders? Johnson's role, if there's to be one for him, would also likely necessarily include return duties, so the preseason will be important for him in that area, both in returning punts and kickoffs.
Without name-checking each receiver on the roster, two others figure to have a chance to fight for the roster. Mardy Gilyard was a fourth-round pick of the St. Louis Rams in 2010 and was thought to be a potential playmaker in the NFL. Things didn't work out in St. Louis, but Gilyard has been a mainstay at the NovaCare Complex all offseason, working with the quarterbacks and learning the system. There's a long line of receivers in NFL history who have emerged after their original starting point, so don't fully rule out things clicking for Gilyard up at training camp. Lastly, Ronald Johnson spent the 2011 season on the Eagles' practice squad, so he knows how things work around here. Johnson, like the other aforementioned Johnson, also has return ability and will have his chances as well.
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