It is hard to believe but the numbers bear it out: The last Eagles wide receiver to have big numbers in a single season was Jordan Matthews, who in 2015 recorded 85 catches for 997 yards and then followed that up with a 2016 campaign in which he produced 73 catches and 804 yards. Even in the Super Bowl season of 2017, the Eagles spread it around as Alshon Jeffery had his (57 receptions, 789 yards, 9 touchdowns), Nelson Agholor had his (62-768-8), and Torrey Smith, the speed guy, chipped in with a valuable 36 receptions and 430 yards.
Not since Jeremy Maclin in 2014 have the wide receiver numbers really jumped off the charts – he had 85 receptions, 1,318 yards, and 10 touchdowns – in the last gasp of Chip Kelly's offense before it was ground to a halt.
The Eagles have been a spread-it-around offense both in the running game and in the passing game and that's the way it's been. When it has worked, the offense has taken flight. At other times, the Eagles have struggled to maintain consistency and put big points on the board.
As the team enters a pivotal game on Sunday at Pittsburgh, the Eagles again find themselves staring at a young and largely unproven group of wide receivers to do the heavy lifting on throws from quarterback Carson Wentz. Veteran Alshon Jeffery, who was making progress as he recovers from a foot injury suffered last December, will miss the game as he has been sidelined by illness (non-COVID related) this week. Veteran DeSean Jackson is also out as he recovers from a hamstring injury. Marquise Goodwin, the world-class speedster acquired in a draft weekend trade from San Francisco, opted out of the 2020 season in the summer.
The hope for this season was that the veterans would lead the way while a three-man NFL Draft Class earned its stripes. The Eagles used a first-round draft pick on Jalen Reagor, who is currently on Injured Reserve with a thumb injury. Sixth-round draft pick Quez Watkins is back at practice after spending the first four weeks of the season on IR and he could be activated for this game. Fifth-round draft pick John Hightower has played more than 80 percent of the snaps in each of the last two games and is on the rise, chipping in a pair of catches each week including a crucial fourth-down conversion Sunday night in San Francisco.
Hightower, Greg Ward, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, and Travis Fulgham, a big-play maker from the win over the 49ers, are expected to be the wide receivers Sunday in Pittsburgh. That's a far cry from where the Eagles expected to be, but that's just the way it is in this 2020 NFL, and the Eagles are going to move forward with what they have.
"I feel good about those guys," quarterback Carson Wentz said. "They're working hard and making progress. I have all the confidence in the world in them. We're going to line up and play."
In a world of long-term hopes, the Eagles are using short-term solutions at wide receiver. Much like the way the Eagles moved around the offensive pieces in 2019 and won four games down the stretch to capture the NFC East, the team has reached into its practice squad to supplement the position group. Deontay Burnett came up in 2019 and he's done the same twice so far this season. Fulgham joined the active roster on Saturday, had a standout game on Sunday, and realized the pitfalls that come with sudden prominence – his Twitter account was hacked on Sunday night and was down until Friday afternoon. Ah, the life of a prime-time touchdown scorer. Ward is the veteran of the group, shocking as that seems, and it's a role that comes naturally with him.
"I'm just doing what I do and helping the guys any way I can," Ward said. "I'm just working hard and all of those guys are working hard."
At some point here, the Eagles hope Jackson and Jeffery are given the green light to play and step in and add some bounce, and that Reagor comes off of IR and jumps right into the mix and that there is actually a numbers game that needs to be played. It's wishful thinking, given the way the injuries have marred this season, but you never know, right? This is a week-to-week league and the Eagles are optimistically hoping that the kids step up on Sunday and stun Pittsburgh and really get this season headed in the right direction.
In the big picture, long-term solutions are the goal. The Eagles have been on a year-to-year basis at wide receiver. They've invested draft picks and trade assets at the position with the goal of finding the Maclin-Jackson-Jason Avant combination enjoyed from 2009-12. They've not found traction. Not yet. It remains a priority.
In a league that has set scoring records early in the season, the Eagles are doing everything creative they can to score points – running the football, attempting two-point conversions after touchdowns, etc. – and they're going to have to be more efficient than ever on Sunday to defeat Pittsburgh and its pressure-heavy defensive front and experienced and ballhawking secondary. Can Fulgham follow up his big Sunday night with more on Sunday? Can Arcega-Whiteside use his big body and strong hands to move the chains? Can Ward control the middle of the field with his sharp route-running skills? Can the Eagles use Hightower's big-time speed in the vertical passing game?
There are going to be the names lining up at wide receiver on Sunday that Eagles fans would have never guessed to be a part of such an important game, but that's the picture as it's painted here. Maybe one or two of them emerge for the long haul, because that is what he needed here: The Eagles need to find solutions at wide receiver who are going to be on the field and producing every week, to build some continuity with Wentz, and who are going to make defenses account for their skills. In the short term, of course, all that matters is finding a way to win, and the Eagles are trying to get that done with a group of receivers who are trying to build their names and their games in the NFL.