Philadelphia Eagles News

WR Tales: Stories Of Early Lessons

Maybe the historic Class of 2014 wipes away the perception that rookie wide receivers don't thrive in the NFL. Jordan Matthews, who we saw every week, was proof of the new day at wide receiver in the league. He caught 67 passes for 872 yards and eight touchdowns in his highly successful rookie season, one of a handful of rookie wideouts who stepped right into the big time and made an instant impact.

Can Nelson Agholor have the same early success? It's a question that Agholor was asked last week as the Rookie Minicamp began, and he brushed it off with professionalism and reality: "That's not the conversation right now," he said, instead focusing on the day-to-day goal of improvement."

It's the correct approach, and Agholor has demonstrated in his early days as an Eagle poise far beyond his experience. He gets it. He understands the position he is in and the opportunity in front of him.

We'll see how it goes with Agholor. No predictions. No proclamations. He is in the first step of many in his career.

But what does the past tell us? Is the performance from last year's NFL Rookie Class of wide receivers a blip in an otherwise rocky road of first-year wide receiver output? Consider this: In 44 seasons since the AFL-NFL merger prior to the 2014 season, just 12 players exceeded 1,000 yards receiving as rookies, and 24 had 900 yards or more. In 2014 alone, three receivers (New York's Odell Beckham, Jr., Tampa Bay's Mike Evans and Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin) surpassed 1,000 receiving yards and another, Buffalo's Sammy Watkins, had 982 receiving yards.

It's been a mixed bag for Eagles receivers in their first seasons. Matthews, the rock-solid personality who showed immediately great talent and an admirable work ethic, came right in and kept his head down and delivered from the slot-receiver position.

Back in 1990, head coach Buddy Ryan thrust two draft picks, Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams, into the lineup with veteran Mike Quick injured and second-round draft pick Mike Bellamy lagging from a groin injury. Barnett and Williams combined for 73 receptions and 17 touchdowns for the 10-6 Eagles.

"Every day we heard about rookie this, rookie that, about those rookie receivers on the Eagles being a bust," Barnett said in November of that year after a 31-13 win over the Giants.

It can happen. It has happened. Rookie receivers develop at this own rate, due to a variety of reasons.

Quick, a five-time Pro Bowl receiver in his Eagles career, caught just 10 passes and scored one touchdown in 1982 before exploding for 69 catches, 1,409 yards and 13 touchdowns a season later. 

"It's a matter of getting comfortable in the system and in the league and then earning the trust of the coaching staff," Quick said. "It didn't happen with me. It took time to adjust and have everything fall into place. You get a lot thrown at you. The adjustment is huge. My rookie season, there was a lot going on. The league went on strike from September until November. That didn't help at all. We weren't a very good team (3-6). Dick Vermeil was exhausted and resigned at the end of the year.

"It was all very confusing. I was just trying not to drown. I will say this, though: I learned more that year than any other season in the NFL. It turned out to be a benefit."

It could be a collection of random performances that make up the statistical data as far as Eagles' wide receivers go. Harold Carmichael has the most catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in franchise history, but he caught only 20 passes in back-to-back seasons in 1971 and 1972 before a 67 catch-1,176 yards-9 touchdowns breakout in 1973.

Freddie Mitchell looked like he would become a valuable piece in the offense as a rookie in 2001 with 21 catches, 16 of them for first downs. He caught only 69 passes in the next three years and was out of the league after that.

Both DeSean Jackson (62 catches, 912 yards in 2008) and Jeremy Maclin (56 catches, 773 yards) had instant impacts in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Matthews, of course, did his thing very well in 2014. 

"It depends on the guy and on a lot of other factors, including the rest of the offense and the coaching staff," Barnett said. "Me and Calvin kind of got thrown into the fire. We needed to respond. We had no choice, and that helped us. We were given a lot of opportunities to make plays and it worked out for us."

The NFL throws more in 2015 than it did in 1982, when Quick was a rookie, or in 1990, when Barnett was a new receiver on the block. The spread-it-out offenses give receivers more one-on-one plays in space. Defenders are limited with how physical they can play the game -- there is contact permitted only within the first five yards of the line of scrimmage -- and that makes a difference.

"It''s more than that, though," Quick said. "Kids in high school are having seven-on-seven camps almost year round. They are so much more prepared than players were coming in the NFL even 15 years ago. A lot of the concepts that are used in college are used now in the league. These kids come in and they're much more ready to contribute right away.

"Nelson Agholor, I'll tell you this about him. I remember seeing him before the draft and hearing what his college coach said about him and his football IQ and how they used him at USC, moving him around the formation so much. I said to myself, 'This is a Chip Kelly kind of player for a lot of reason.' Here he is now. I think he's got a chance to help this offense right away. He has a lot to learn and he knows that. I like that approach. That's the right way to start a career."

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