The first installment of our ‘Splash or Save’ series that focuses on offensive side of the ball for the Eagles in free agency takes a look at the wide receiver position. While the team has question marks and decisions to make up and down the depth chart, it is perhaps the wide receiver position that has garnered the most attention from both the media and the fans. Given the uncertain status of free agents Riley Cooper & Jeremy Maclin to go along with the fact that Jason Avant could soon become a salary cap casualty, it is possible that the unit has a distinctly different look heading into the 2014 season.
The Eagles are among a cluster of teams that is shifting the way that the wide receiver position is being evaluated and addressed. Factors such as blocking ability, vision, and even the ability to improvise are starting to take priority over straight-line speed and precision route-running. Due to the emergence of ‘option routes’ and the increased level of trust required between receivers and their quarterbacks, teams are starting to search out players whose abilities best lend themselves toward a new breed of outside threat. Players that were once considered too small or slight to play the position are now commodities due to their ability to operate in tight spaces and find hidden yards after the catch. Conversely, players that were once considered to big or bulky to play a ‘finesse’ position are now considered the more prototypical #1 option. All one has to do is read all of the raving about this year’s draft class and the imposing targets that many expect to make up a major concentration of the first couple rounds come May. In a conference call held with the collective NFL media, draft expert and NFL Network contributor Mike Mayock painted a bullish picture for this year’s draft class at the wideout position.
“Really interesting because it’s the best wide receiver draft I’ve seen in years and obviously depending what happens in front of them. Watkins will be long gone and then you start to get into what flavor do you like. Marqise Lee is a completely different receiver than Mike Evans or Kelvin Benjamin.”
This formality will undoubtedly affect how teams approach the free agent class at wide receiver. Even as a position that often warrants top-dollar, teams might shy away from levying the type of blockbuster deals that have been handed out to receivers in years past. It is a cheaper, and generally more preferred option to bring in talented prospects through the draft and hope the team is not backed into a corner where they have to overpay a free agent. Because of this, it is possible that some of the more marquee names in this year’s free agent class my opt to remain with their current team, or be forced to take a deal slightly below market value.
Even with the Eagles offense putting together one of their best season’s in franchise history, the wide receiver unit was rather thin and not composed of the most threatening players. After Jason Avant, there was very little talent that Chip Kelly put on the field to spell the team’s top three receivers. Philadelphia got much more out of their tight ends and backs in the passing game than some of their supplementary receivers. As much as it’s a good thing that the Eagles trust their tight ends in the passing game, it’s not ideal that the team got such concentrated production from the wide receiver position. Regardless of who remains on the roster by the start of the season or if the team decides to prioritize the position in the draft, one has to expect the team to be a player in the free agent market for an upgrade on the outside.
2013 POSITION REVIEW
Even though one would consider the wide receiver position a need for the Eagles, the unit as a whole performed exceptionally well in 2013. Riley Cooper and DeSean Jackson both turned in career seasons in their first year with Chip Kelly calling the shots. There was a major blow to the unit before the season started when Jeremy Maclin went down with an ACL tear. All things considering though, one would have to figure the team handled the loss of their former 1st round pick better than expected.
Even though he is still limited by his size, DeSean Jackson had a semi-breakout year in 2013. Jackson set a career mark in receptions (82), yards (1332), and tied his career-high in touchdown catches (9). After many had pegged the former 2nd round pick as a one-trick pony due to the lack of creativity in his game prior to the arrival of Kelly, Jackson had a lot working against him. Even though he fizzled out a bit towards the end, Jackson stepped up in a big way last season and emerged as a more consistent pass-catching threat without losing the explosiveness that forced defenses to play over the top for the better part of Jackson’s career. Contract complaints aside, Jackson is a valuable commodity and figures to have a key role going forward.
With Nick Foles under center, Riley Cooper turned into a different player. His 2013 output exceeded his combined career totals in yards (835) & touchdowns (8). Cooper’s 47 catches matched the combined amount from his previous three years in the NFL and, by year’s end, he was Nick Foles’ favorite target in the red zone. Cooper was excellent in blocking downfield, tracking deep balls, and keeping plays alive for Chip Kelly on offense. Even as a free agent, one would have to think the team will make an effort to try to keep Cooper in the fold for a reasonable amount.
After the top-two, things got hairy for the Eagles. Jason Avant totaled his lowest catch output (38) in five seasons and the combination of Brad Smith, Jeff Maehl, & Damaris Johnson could only muster eight catches between them. One cannot say what the expectations were for the trio over the course of the season, but it’s probably safe to say each one of them came up short of that. The Eagles made due at the wideout position in 2013, but there was far too much responsibility placed on Jackson & Cooper by season’s end.
Depending on what the market dictates, these categories could flip-flop and the discussion regarding the players could take on a whole different narrative. These distinctions are mostly based on notoriety, 2013 performances, and the fact that each player is probably the ideal option for their specific skill set. In 2013, Mike Wallace set the bar for free agents when the Dolphins inked the speedy split-end to a five-year/$60 million deal. Miami had painted themselves into a corner after years of ignoring the position and finally made a splash in a big way with Wallace.
Unless a team like the Raiders or Redskins, with seemingly limitless cap space, fancies a deal with him, there is no way Decker is earning that type of deal. Even as the top target in the class, the rich draft class and the fact that Decker had Peyton Manning throwing him the ball will probably drive his value down. Include the fact that he was not even the best receiver on his team, and one has to think Decker might be looking at a considerable discount compared to the deal given to Wallace last offseason.
Edelman and Boldin are both premiere slot options with distinctly different playing styles and contract projections. The 27-year old Edelman is most likely looking for his biggest contract as a pro. The former college quarterback shattered his previous career mark in 2013 and, in an offseason dominated by tall, physical receivers, Edelman should benefit from being more of a slot-weapon.
Coming off a one-year deal with the 49ers, Boldin’s future is uncertain when it comes to his time in San Francisco. He was excellent in his first year and showed a solid rapport with quarterback Colin Kaepernick. While it is a possibility that the 49ers will bring Boldin back given the veteran’s value to the team that came up just shy int he NFC Championship game, Boldin has proved to be among the most formidable targets in the NFL and has proven he can step into any locker room and excel from day one. Boldin, even on a one-year deal, would probably put a substantial dent into any team’s cap number.
One could argue there is very little drop-off from category to category. Players like Golden Tate and Emmanuel Sanders may turn out to be more ideal options, but did not play in an offense that necessarily shed the brightest light on their skills. Dexter McCluster is a name that should interest the Eagles, given his versatility and explosiveness in both the pass-catching game and special teams. Ted Ginn Jr. also brings the element as a returner that should attract Philadelphia, given their struggles in that category last season.
James Jones probably won’t get the deal he is looking for from the Packers given the drop-off of his 2013 season compared to 2012, and could be an intriguing option as a red zone threat, should the Eagles choose to take that path.
Even though some of the players on either list might not seem like a fit for the Eagles, one can only base so much off of what they saw from the team last season and to sell Chip Kelly short on his ability to creatively utilize skill players would be foolish. Depending on how the rest of things shake out during the offseason, do not be surprised if multiple names from these lists end up getting a long look from the Eagles when it is all said and done.
VERDICT: SPLASH (SPECIFICALLY)
If there is a position that the Eagles could, and should, infuse with a considerable amount of new talent it is the wide receiver position. All of the variables are in place for teams to add major upgrades and given Philadelphia’s flexibility as far as cap space and draft picks, this is a prime season to do so. The rich draft and the number of teams in precarious salary cap situations creates a market that should be conducive for a team like the Eagles to improve immensely.
If there is a position of importance in the NFL that might cause some serious questions if a team took with a first round pick, it is a dependable slot receiver. No matter how many Pro Bowls players like Wes Welker or Edelman make, it is almost impossible to justify taking a player who is barely six-feet tall during a year where there are so many imposing options to choose from in the draft. Even in a down year, a player has to be a special talent to warrant a first round selection (Tavon Austin in 2013) and a team still has to take the dive to make the pick.
The Eagles need to bring in a viable slot option that can serve as a threat in the short-passing game. Even with their formidable duo of tight ends, the Eagles did not have a player that put pressure on the opposing team’s nickel packages. Jason Avant, who was never particularly athletic, is a poor man’s version of Anquan Boldin and his struggles during 2013 made it seem all the more likely that he will not be on board come the 2014 season. Nick Foles looks like the type of passer who can take the next step in his game with a slot option that serves as a short-to-intermediate safety valve when things break down. For all the complaints about how Foles held onto the ball too long, consider the fact that only Jackson and maybe Zack Ertz could create separation. Players like Tate, McCluster, or Edelman has already shown they can do significant damage in a spread-style offense and the Eagles become that much more dangerous with a new weapon such as any of the names mentioned above.
It would be tough to get upset with the team bringing in Boldin. He is an extremely tough football player and has had a significant role in three different locker rooms for teams that have made it to the Super Bowl. While I would prefer a younger option that can grow alongside Foles, Boldin’s ability to step in and establish himself as Colin Kaepernick’s primary target eases the concern over a lack of connection with the Eagles young quarterback.
Because it seems as if there are so few players who excel the way the best ones do, this would be a position I would be ok with the Eagles getting into a bidding war over. The market has a cap on it due to the fact that the best player (Decker), is not a number one option. If Philadelphia finds themselves engaged in a squabble over who collects the rights of one of these players, failing to do so could make it extremely difficult for the team to acquire one in the future.
While I listed most of the notable receivers without regard to the style of player each one is, my desired type of player would have to be one of the smaller, slot options that has been discussed. Tate, Edelman, and McCluster all have the versatility that this regime has discussed at length and there is no reason to rest on their laurels and wait for one to fall into their lap. Due to the restricted market, the deficiencies at the position, and the opportunity to acquire a rare type of player, 2014 appears to be an offseason where the Eagles should make a splash in the search for a new wide receiver.