The Eagles pass catchers are playing poorly and the Eagles need to improve that position this offseason. But the situation isn’t as dire as we think, and the improvement needed isn’t as drastic as many claim.
Patrick Causey, Follow on Twitter @pcausey3
The Philadelphia Eagles are competing for a wildcard spot, but are held back, in part, by the poor play of their wide receivers and tight ends. Their shortcomings have limited Carson Wentz’s and the offense’s production. It has left points on the field – quite literally, since the Eagles have dropped at least four passes in the end zone. And it has caused rampant discussion on sports radio and in the comment sections about how the unit needs a drastic overhaul this offseason.
But are the pass catchers as bad as we think?
Let’s start with the obvious: on the season, the Eagles have one of the least productive receiving units in the NFL. That shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that has watched this team even a handful of times. To underscore this point, I charted the top three pass catchers in terms of yards for every team to compare the Eagles to the rest of the league. Note that I used only wide receivers and tight ends, and excluded running backs.
Combine the total production from Jordan Matthews, Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor on the year, and they have caught 115 passes for 1,280 yards, 5 touchdowns and a 63% catch rate. Compared to the top three pass catchers from every other team in the league, here is how that combined production ranks, out of 32 teams:
- Catches: T-30th
- Yards: 30th
- Touchdowns: T-31st
- Catch%: T-21st
That is….less than ideal. Only two teams – the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers – have worse production from their top three pass catchers across the board. To make matters worse, the Eagles have three receivers – Matthews, Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham – that rank among the top 20 in drop rate according to Pro Football Focus. So in the short term, these problems are paramount.
But if we consider the big picture, the situation is not as dire as many suggest. For all of their shortcomings, Jordan Matthews and Zach Ertz are above average players at their positions. Matthews is upholding his end of the bargain, drops notwithstanding. He ranks 25th in the NFL in total yards, and is on pace to eclipse 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in his career.
But Zach Ertz is on pace for 56 catches for 603 yards and 2 touchdowns. That’s well below his numbers last year: 75 catches, 853 yards and 2 touchdowns. Given that Ertz is only 25 years-old, we should expect his production to improve, not regress.
So what gives? Two things. Ertz had a displaced rib, an injury which could lead to a punctured lung if not treated properly. Like Ron Burgundy, that’s kind of a big deal. Doug Pederson also alluded to chemistry concerns between Ertz and Wentz. So Ertz missed two games because of the injury, and then caught only 9 passes for 92 yards and 0 touchdowns from weeks 5-9 when he returned. Even if you hate Ertz because he avoids contact like the plague, you have to recognize that those numbers are well-below the level at which he normally produces.
Now look at the last three weeks, Ertz is healthier and has become a focal point of the Eagles passing attack. He has been targeted 26 times, has caught 20 passes, for 187 yards and 1 TD. And that doesn’t even include the 53 yard touchdown catch that was negated by Agholor’s boneheaded penalty. Extrapolate those numbers out over the course of a season, and the end result is 96 catches, 922 yards, 5 tds. That’s impressive; and I suspect is the kind of production the Eagles were anticipating when they signed Ertz to a shiny new contract extension this offseason.
So riddle me this: if the Eagles had two pass catchers on pace to eclipse 1,000 yards, do you think we would be as concerned about the receiving options on this team? Probably not. And that is especially true once we factor in the contributions of Darren Sproles and Trey Burton.
To be clear, I am not suggesting the Eagles are set at the receiving position. It goes without saying they need to invest in that position this offseason. But I am suggesting the position might not be as dire as we suspect since we already have two legitimate receiving threats upon which we can rely.
How Do The Eagles Improve: Internal v External Options
The question becomes, from where does that improvement come? The Eagles were banking on Nelson Agholor filling the void this season, but that plan has gone as well as the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
Nevertheless, it’s too early to give up on him. I know – he’s frustrating as hell – and that frustration reached its zenith last week following Agholor getting called for a penalty that negated Ertz’s touchdown and dropping a pass that would have led to an approximately 40 yard gain.
In the moment, it seems like Agholor won’t ever justify his status as a first-round pick. But I remember the same thing being said about Brandon Graham not too long ago, and he’s now one of the best pass rushers in football. And there is at least some evidence of third year receivers making the jump after struggling during their first two seasons.
So there is hope. Agholor’s teammates and coaches have confidence in him. And he has provided brief glimpses, however fleeting, of the talent that caused many to compare Agholor to Jeremy Maclin and Emanuel Sanders. Ignore the result of these plays for a minute. Just watch the routes Agholor runs on these next two plays and remember that he was covered by Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, respectively:
The talent might be there. The confidence is not. And since cutting Agholor will produce a $2.5 million cap hit next season, the Eagles are likely giving him another year to sort it out regardless. Odds are he doesn’t figure it out. But if he does? It’s just icing on the cake.
But the Eagles can’t bank on Agholor improving. There is too much risk associated with Agholor at this point; they need to invest in the position this offseason.
If the Eagles want to get an elite wide receiver, they will likely have to turn to the draft again. Below is a chart of the top 13 receivers from each of the last six seasons. (Somewhat intuitive, but D = draft, FA = free agent, and T = the player was acquired by trade). Of the 91 receivers listed below, 72 were acquired in the draft (79%). Only 11, or 12%, were acquired via free agency.
|B. Floyd (FA)||C Johnson (D)||C Johnson (D)||J Gordon (D)||A Brown (D)||J Jones (D)||J Jones (D)|
|R. White (D)||W Welker (T)||A Johnson (D)||A Brown (D)||D Thomas (D)||A Brown (D)||A Green (D)|
|R Wayne (D)||V Cruz (D)||B Marshall (T)||C Johnson (D)||J Jones (D)||D Hopkins (D)||M Evans (D)|
|G Jennings (D)||L Fitzgerald (D)||D Thomas (D)||D Thomas (D)||J Nelson (D)||B Marshall (FA)||A Brown (D)|
|M Wallace (D)||S Smith (D)||V Jackson (D)||A Green (D)||E Sanders (FA)||O Beckham (D)||T Hilton (D)|
|A Johnson (D)||R White (D)||D Bryant (D)||P Garcson (FA)||T Hilton (D)||A Robinson (D)||A Cooper (D)|
|D Bowe (D)||J Nelson (D)||R Wayne (D)||D Jacknson (D)||G Tate (FA)||D Thomas (D)||L Fitzgerald (D)|
|L Fitzgerald (D)||B Marshall (T)||W Welker (T)||J Nelson (D)||D Bryant (D)||A Green (D)||S Diggs (D)|
|C Johnson (D)||M Wallace (D)||R White (D)||B Marshall (FA)||J Maclin (D)||L Fitzgerald (D)||K Britt (FA)|
|S Moss (D)||H Nicks (D)||A Green (D)||E Decker (D)||O Beckham (D)||C Johnson (D)||B Cooks (D)|
|S Johnson (D)||D Bowe (D)||J Jones (D)||V Jackson (D)||R Cobb (D)||M Evans (D)||M Wallace (FA)|
|D Jackson (D)||M Colston (D)||S Smith (D)||A Boldin (FA)||D Hopkins (D)||L Landry (D)||D Baldwin (D)|
|H Nicks (D)||A Brown (D)||Colston (D)||T Smith (D)||D Jackson (FA)||B Cooks (D)||T Pryor (FA)|
The Eagles have several holes on their roster, including cornerback and offensive line. So investing another high draft pick in the position is less than ideal.
But the Eagles can still find value in free agency, thanks in large part to Howie Roseman, who has proven especially adept at unearthing a diamond in the rough. Malcolm Jenkins, Connor Barwin, Darren Sproles and Rodney McLeod are all examples of mid-tier free agents/trade targets that out played their perceived value.
So I’m confident that Roseman will find one to two effective receivers in free agency. Here is a list of pending free agents that Roseman can target. I’ll be brief since we will have plenty of time to address this topic in the offseason:
- Alshon Jeffery: He is the cream of crop; a potential top 15 guy that will change the dynamic of this offense. But, despite advocating for acquiring him early in the year, I think his recent suspension changes the dynamic. Lane Johnson just missed 10 games this year. Investing in Jeffery means the Eagles would have a considerable portion of their salary cap tied to two players that could miss most of the season with just one mistake. It says here that the risk is too great for Roseman’s liking. I think they pass.
- Desean Jackson: some have expressed concerns about signing Jackson, who turns 30 this year. In the past, speed guys didn’t age well. But Jackson has become a more complete receiver as of late, and as we have seen from guys like Steve Smith and Darren Sproles, 30 is the new 27. So if Jackson comes at a discount, I’d welcome his return.
- Michael Floyd: hard pass. He’s talented, but too inconsistent, as evidenced by his 53% catch rate.
- Terrelle Pryor: He’s one of my favorite free agents. He’s 6’6, 240 lbs and ran a 4.38 40 during his pro day. Hue Jackson has finally tapped into his athletic potential, and Pryor has caught 56 passes for 724 yards and 4 touchdowns so far. Most importantly, he’s a big play threat that could help the Eagles stretch field vertically. Given their cap space and dearth of talent on their roster, the Browns will likely try to re-sign him this offseason. But if he’s available, he’s worth a look.
- Pierre Garcon: Like Jackson, Garcon is 30-years old. But again, I’m not as concerned about that age anymore given the number of productive players on the wrong side of 30. Plus, he’s a possession guy, so his skill set ages better than pure speed guys. Oh, and did I mention that the dude can actually CATCH THE DAMN FOOTBALL? He’s caught 64%, 62%, 65%, 65% and 67% of his targets since coming to Washington. Sign me up.
- Robert Woods: since Watkins was injured, Wood has emerged as Taylor’s favorite pass catcher. He’s on pace for 876 yards while catching 70% of his passes. He’s also only 24 years old. I would be shocked if the Bills let him walk, but if they do, he would be near the top of my list.
- Kenny Britt/Anquan Boldin/Kendall Wright: not sure these guys make much since. Britt has enjoyed a resurgence in LA, but part of that is likely just because he is one of the few competent receivers on the team. Boldin is a guy I wanted the Eagles to sign this offseason, but at 36, it’s fair to wonder if he’s reached the end of his rope. And while I like Wright’s production, he is primarily a slot guy, which is where Jordan Matthews makes his living. I just don’t think any of these guys make sense.
Pick two players on that list, say, Jackson and Garcon, and pair them with Matthews in the slot and Ertz at tight end. Add in a 3rd or 4th round pick plus Agholor, and the Eagles all of a sudden have competence at the position. And considering the inept play we have seen the last two seasons, that would be welcomed.