While it may not go down as being the most important development of their offseason, there is perhaps no more high-profile question mark facing the Eagles in the coming months than what the team will look like at the wide receiver position heading into the 2014 season. Given the nature of the position, the offensively-geared philosophies of Eagles coach Chip Kelly, and the fact that there is potential for substantial turnover with Philadelphia at wideout makes it one of the major hot button issues facing Howie Roseman and the rest of the team’s front office. Despite the fact that it would be highly unlikely, not one of the wide receivers on the Eagles roster is considered untouchable and some will not even be in the team’s control in a matter of a few weeks.
The two biggest chess pieces in the grand picture that is the Eagles offseason from a wide receiver standpoint are Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin. With both players about to enter free agency and bringing a respectable product to the table, the general narrative has been that the Eagles would be unable to hang on to both players. Whether due to the fact that the collective price tag between the two mid-20s players is beyond what the Eagles intend to spend for the position or that they genuinely do not see one of the two as part of their future agenda, it has become almost universally accepted that either Maclin or Cooper will be playing elsewhere next season.
Just for argument’s sake, if the team was able to bring back both players next season, would they be able to make it work? The market for a receiver like Maclin, coming off of a significant injury, is never a sure thing. Even with a vast market apparently developing for Riley Cooper, there are some that argue he does not hold value elsewhere and there is always the possibility of agent’s floating rumors to drive up numbers. Both players could decide that Philadelphia is the place that gives them the best chance to succeed and give the Eagles a hometown discount. Any number of possibilities could occur that could make it easy for the team to sign both players for at least the near future. The question for the Eagles is, would they even want to?
Envision a scenario where Cooper and Maclin were both brought back for at least the 2014 season. Let’s assume that the team parts ways with Jason Avant and no issues arise with DeSean Jackson. This would mean that, most likely, the Eagles would field a wideout unit of: Jackson (WR1), Cooper (WR2), Maclin (WR3), draftee/FA/Arrelious Benn (WR4). One can debate about what the team would do after their first three, but given the money allocated to each of them, it is hard to imagine them not sitting atop the depth chart entering the season. While I’m certain he would not be limited in his role, Maclin would probably be forced to play more on the inside given Cooper’s lack of quickness and short-burst speed. In addition to the wide receivers, the Eagles would lean heavily on tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek and would most likely continue to utilize backs in the passing game to quite a degree.
One can look at this situation from a couple different schools of thought. An optimist might look at this and preach on the value of continuity. The Eagles will have solidified a pass-catching unit of productive-to-near prolific players whom they are familiar with. Their quarterback has significant experience with all three wideouts to go along with his supplementary receivers. This would probably have been a cost-effective option that did not force the team to use a high-round draft pick on a position they would be able to upgrade without leaving the organization. The offense would be returning almost every single significant part from the year before and the coaching staff could focus more on introducing new wrinkles to the offense rather than teaching new players the basics.
An opposing opinion on this approach would be that the franchise was possibly selling themselves short from a talent standpoint. A top-three wide receiving core of DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Riley Cooper, while formidable, is lacking in multiple areas. Maclin and Jackson, at full strength, are similar players. Neither is very tall and both utilize their speed and separation to impact the opposition. You could argue that Maclin is a bit better in terms of route-running and intermediate play, but he is not a physical presence at his height like Anquan Boldin is. Cooper introduces the height/physical element that has been lacking with the Eagles passing game for quite some time, but he is by no means the type of athlete that can stretch defenses and devastate the opposition after the catch. Cooper, along with the other two receivers, have notable flaws that have kept them from emerging as number one receivers.
There is no question that the Eagles offense would ‘work’ with a more stay-the-course approach with their personnel. Along with Ertz, Celek, and LeSean McCoy, the Eagles would have a multi-threat passing attack that would undoubtedly put up big numbers and probably take a few steps from last season with the addition of Maclin. Nick Foles would have had an entire offseason as the starting quarterback and would have been given the opportunity to develop more continuity and familiarity with the rest of his offense. As much as building on last year’s success is important, I am of the opinion that bringing back both players would force the Eagles into a position where there would be a cap on how much talent they could have on the field at one time.
For how much of a pleasant surprise Riley Cooper was last season, one forgets that he was kept here partially out of necessity. After Cooper’s racial slur incident early in the preseason, many wondered if the Eagles would cut ties with the former 5th round pick. Problem was, Jeremy Maclin would be out for the season and that would mean the team would be out two seasoned receivers before Chip Kelly ever led the team into a competitive game. The organization backed Cooper and continues to do so throughout, but it is hard to imagine Maclin’s injury did not have a little to do with them hanging onto a player who had never totaled more than 23 catches in any of his three NFL seasons. One could argue that, were Maclin to have remained healthy throughout the preseason, that Cooper would have been shown the door and never given the chance to create the type of value he apparently has as a free agent.
Even at 100%, Maclin leaves some to be desired if you’re talking top-money free agents. As a first round drat pick, Maclin has put forth respectable numbers and is by no means a bust, quite the opposite. Given his frame, a healthy Maclin is close to the peak of the type of player a team would hope to get after such a short career. My issue with getting into a bidding war over Maclin is wondering if he will ever achieve his ceiling, which I envision as something similar to Michael Crabtree. Bringing back Maclin AND Cooper would basically be admitting that the roster is good enough with three wide receivers, all of which have glaring question marks whether they are viable options on a championship team. The Seattle Seahawks won a Super Bowl with a low-profile cast of receivers, but were not paying them top free agent money and it allowed them to strengthen the rest of their team.
All offseason, we’ve debated whether Cooper of Maclin was the better receiver to try to keep in the fold for the Eagles. This is an argument I feel has justifiable support on both sides of the fence. Having one of these two players will benefit the Eagles, because both of them are good players with more room to grow. That being said, I do not envision a scenario that has the Eagles bringing both players back and taking big enough steps forward as an offense to contend.
Based on pure talent, size, and athleticism I would say the Eagles have two skill players with elite potential. LeSean McCoy has already achieved this potential, warranted by his all-pro 2013 campaign. Some may dispute this, but I think Zach Ertz has the framework and work ethic to turn into one of the NFL’s top five tight ends. The team has a few elite talents on the offensive line and Nick Foles could become a fringe top-ten quarterback. After that, Philadelphia’s offense ranges from very good down to slightly above average.
Despite the fact that there is little to actually base this off of, something tells me Chip Kelly wants to keep bringing in elite talent on offense. Because of this notion, I expect the wide receiver position to be a point of emphasis when it comes to new acquisitions in free agency and the draft. The class of 2014 is one of the most talent-rich at the wide receiver position in recent history. The Eagles could conceivably land a talent in the first two rounds that is superior than the highest receiver drafted in last year’s draft (Tavon Austin-No.8).
NFL Network’s Mike Mayock: “It’s the best wide receiver draft I’ve seen in years.” #49ers
— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) February 18, 2014
If they don’t do it in the first round, I would be stunned if the Eagles went through the 2nd round without a receiver in their class. There are a handful of receivers in this year’s class who possess the type of size that dominates in the NFL and speed and explosiveness superior to that of Cooper’s. There’s something to be said for Cooper’s rapport with Nick Foles and Maclin is a commodity given the fact that he has first round talent. Yet there is much to be desired with a top-three receiving trio that has no definitive number one target.
Unless either player’s market is radically overblown, someone is going to pay more from one of the two players than the Eagles have plans on doing so. Honestly, I consider this to be a good thing and feel that they would be handicapping themselves by having the top of the depth chart at wideout filled with players under their second contracts. Judging off of everything the organization has said documenting their financial approach to the offseason, it is extremely unlikely that both Cooper and Maclin are here next season for anything less than a discount. If both players were brought back on a discount, I still think the organization would try to upgrade through the draft. Because of this, paying both players more than a discount is a classic case of not utilizing one’s resources to the fullest. With the quality of the draft and the abundance of free agents at various positions, the Eagles can continue a rapid upheaval that could have them in Super Bowl contention much earlier than one would have hoped. I could be wrong, but inking Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper to be two of the team’s top three receivers is a move that would impede this process.