Philadelphia Eagles: For Nelson Agholor, 13 made all the difference

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

After two seasons marred with inconsistency, a simple number change helped to turn things around for Philadelphia Eagles receiver Nelson Agholor.

Of all the players who stepped their games up in route to the Philadelphia Eagles‘ trip to Super Bowl 52, no one had a more drastic turnaround than third-year wide receiver Nelson Agholor.

After putting together an incredibly exciting career at USC, where the former Trojan hauled in 178 passes for 2,572 yards and 20 touchdowns, Agholor decided to forgo his final year of college eligibility and take his talents to the NFL following his breakout junior season, but unfortunately, his transition to the game’s highest level did not go as smoothly as some of the receivers before him.

Only one year removed from the historic 2014 NFL Draft, a class that featured an unprecedented five wide receivers selected in the first round, four who recorded at least 900 yards as a rookie, and a first year Pro Bowler in Odell Beckham Jr., many fans prematurely began to expect young first round playmakers to enter the league ready to contribute from day one, and quickly assimilate into a starting role as a rookie.

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Heralded as one of the best route runners in the entire 2015 NFL Draft, many outside observers, like the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, applauded the Eagles’ defacto GM Chip Kelly‘s decision to select Agholor with the 20th pick in the first round, and predicted that he would be able to step in and replace 2014 Pro Bowler Jeremy Maclin (who was unceremoniously allowed to walk in free agency following a 1318 season) right away.

But unfortunately for the Eagles, when you draft for need, it can go south in a hurry.

Penciled in as one of the team’s starting receiver alongside second-year slot man Jordan Matthews and the motley crew of Josh Huff, Riley Cooper, and Miles Austin, Agholor struggled to transition his game into the pros as a rookie, only recording 23 catches for 283 yards and a single touchdown in 13 games of action, a far cry from his 104 catches for 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns he recorded the year before in college.

While this was obviously fairly disappointing, especially with OBJ tearing it up for the New York Giants a few hours north up I-95, Agholor’s sophomore campaign left some wondering if he would ever truly live up to his former USC first-round pedigree, or if he would forever go down as yet another Philly bust.

Now slotted in as the teams would be number one receiver alongside Matthews and Tennessee burnout Dorial Green-Beckham, a player who’s not even in the league anymore at the tender age of 25, Agholor started to crack under the immense pressure of his role.

Needless to say, his game suffered as a result.

Though he did see an uptick in production under new head coach Doug Pederson, catching 36 passes for 365 yards, Agholor’s season was once again marred by sloppy play, which all came to a head in the team’s Week 11 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Facing off one-on-one against a still in his prime Richard Sherman, Agholor did not catch any of the three passes thrown his way and lined up illegally on a called back touchdown pass to Zach Ertz, in a game that all but destroyed whatever confidence the second-year receiver had left.

This game affected Agholor so deeply that the following week, in the Eagles’ Week 12 bout against the Cincinnati Bengals, Pederson chose not to start number 17 at all, dropping him down the depth chart to start the game. While he did eventually see the field and hauled in four passes for 23 yards, the team still lost the game 32-14 in what would be their second in four straight losses.

Though Agholor did appear in three of the team’s final four games of the season, and show some signs of life against the Giants in a Week 16 win highlighted by a pair of catches for 47 yards and a touchdown, some again wondered if Agholor would ever truly become the Maclin clone many compared him to coming out of college, or if he would continue a long trend of USC receivers underperforming in the NFL.

But then, a simple number change altered the course of Agholor’s career forever.

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When free agent crown jewel Alshon Jeffery decided to bring his talents to South Philly, after being courted by a number of teams who apparently offered the receiver longer, more lucrative deals, Agholor gave up his number 17 jersey to his teammate and decided to don the number 13 last worn by his draftmate, Josh Huff.

And just like that, everything changed.

No longer tasked with being the number one, or even number two wide receiver, Agholor was moved to the slot, where his speed, agility, and route running abilities could thrive, and he quickly developed into a serious tool for Carson Wentz across the middle of the field.

Agholor was so good in training camp and the Eagles’ first preseason game that Roseman was confident enough to trade the team’s most tenured receiver, Jordan Matthews to the Buffalo Bills for third-year cornerback Ronald Darby.

Freed up to just make plays, Agholor looked like a completely different player in the slot, hauling in 62 passes for 768 yards and eight touchdowns. Logging about 72 percent of the Eagles offensive snaps, the seventh highest percentage of any player on the team, Agholor finally displayed the effortless smooth route running abilities that made scouts fall in love with his tape coming out of college, and finished out the season as the team’s third-leading receiver, effectively doubling his career receiving yards total in a single season.

Now set to enter into his fourth season in the league, Agholor has finally overcome the mental roadblocks that held him back over the first two seasons of his NFL career, and could very well finish out the season with the first 1,000-yard season in what just so happens to be a contract year. While only time will tell if Agholor will be awarded with a second contract to remain in South Philly for the foreseeable future, as the team is currently pretty hard pressed to the salary cap, he clearly can’t be called a bust anymore.

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Though he always had the ability, Agholor allowed the pressures of the outside world, and his own lofty expectations to prevent him from putting his talents on display at the game’s highest level, instead of allowing his own insecurities to hold him back from his true potential. After humbling himself by forfeiting his number to a recently signed teammate, and understand that he didn’t have to win a game all by himself, Agholor finally overcame his emotional roadblocks and became the player everyone, including himself, always hoped he would become when he left USC a year early to pursue his dreams of playing in the NFL.