Philadelphia Eagles: JJ Arcega-Whiteside can learn from Michael Pittman

(Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) /

Ah, another preseason, another chance for JJ Arcega-Whiteside to turn into a player for the Philadelphia Eagles – a summer tradition like no other.

Since coming to South Philly by way of Stanford – seven picks before D.K. Metcalf went 64th overall to the Seattle Seahawks, if you didn’t know – has generated far more hype than on-field production and only played 41 snaps over the final eight games of the 2020 NFL season.

For a player explicitly drafted to become an Alshon Jeffery clone, JJAW hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire and has to be considered a contributing factor in Howie Roseman’s decision to draft a wide receiver in each subsequent draft.

Would it be the worst thing ever if Arcega-Whiteside didn’t work out? No. Every NFL draft pick presents risk, and plenty of second-rounders don’t make it to a second contract. However, the hiring of Nick Sirianni could present one final opportunity for the 24-year-old Cardinal to not only make the team but thrive in a new role.

If JJ Arcega-Whiteside wants to live to play another season, he should spend his summer studying Michael Pittman’s rookie season tape with the Indianapolis Colts.

The Philadelphia Eagles could give JJAW new life as a big slot receiver.

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Measuring in at 6-foot-4, 223 pounds, Michael Pittman looks like the prototypical NFL “X” receiver. He’s tall, has decent speed, and possesses good body control for a player his size, all the while presenting quarterbacks with an ideal target to toss 50-50 balls to.

During his final three-year tenure at USC, Pittman recorded 1,601 offensive snaps on the outside versus 258 snaps lined up in the slot and was able to fleece opposing defenses to the tune of 165 catches for 2,437 yards and 19 touchdowns.

When the Trojans needed a big play, they’d turn to Pittman. When they needed to move the chains on a pivotal third down, they’d turn to Pittman. Heck, the Trojans may as well have renamed the red zone “Pittman Country” during his senior season in University Park, as he had almost twice as many touchdowns as the team’s next best offensive option.

In the NFL? Things haven’t quite so clear-cut.

Drafted in the second round by a plucky upstart squad called the Indianapolis Colts, Pittman joined solid yet non-star-studded wide receivers headlined by T.Y. Hilton, Zach Pascal, and a few other receivers you’ve probably never heard of, unless, you recall Marcus Johnson‘s abbreviated tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2017. He appeared in eight games with eight starts, played 64 percent of the team’s offensive snaps (700), and finished out the season with 40 catches for 503 yards and a single touchdown.

Are those numbers particularly impressive? Eh. They’re slightly better than Jalen Reagor’s, even if they recorded the exact same average yards per catch in 2020, but they don’t quite hold a candle to what receivers like Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Tee Higgins, Jerry Jeudy, or Brandon Aiyuk were able to accomplish for their respective teams.

But hey, it’s cool; every player can’t be a home run hitter. If the back-half of his rookie season is of any indication, Pittman may be in line for a long and fruitful career as a possession specialist across the middle of the field, especially when deployed closer to the line of scrimmage as a big-bodied slot.

After returning from a three-game trip to IR with compartment syndrome in his calf, Pittman averaged 53 receiving yards per game over the Colts’ final eight games of the regular season, versus 27 yards per game from Weeks 1-8. Pittman looked more confident, picked up more yards across the middle of the field, and even recorded his first touchdown and 100-yard game in subsequent wins over Green Bay and Tennessee.

Maybe that was all a coincidence. Maybe a few games off was just what the doctor ordered to get Pittman more acclimated to the game, and he returned to the field a more disciplined, better player.

Or, just hear me out here, maybe the role a player is tasked with really can impact their efficiency.

In the Philadelphia Eagles’ first round of pre-training camp activities, JJ Arcega-Whiteside made minor waves for receiving looks in the slot. While that may seem a bit unusual, considering the team already has Greg Ward and has also started to cross-train 2020 first-round pick Jalen Reagor at the position, it’s a deceptively solid move that could pay dividends moving forward.

Like Pittman, Arcega-Whiteside is a big PAC-12 receiver who can body up opposing slot cornerbacks, safeties, and even some linebackers across the middle of the field. While he hasn’t proved as effective playing on the outside against bigger cornerbacks, JJAW’s highlight reel – yes, such a thing technically exists – is loaded up with chunk plays across the middle of the field and one particularly nice fade away touchdown, which you can watch here.

Even if JJAW was drafted to be an Alshon Jeffrey clone, it’s clear that isn’t his bag. While the Eagles could continue to try to drive a square peg into a round hole before eventually shrugging their shoulders and giving up, why not give him a shot in another hole to see if the fit is any more natural?

Fortunately, Nick Sirianni is both a former wide receiver coach and a hardened proponent of “playing to your strengths,” so if anyone can get the most out of JJAW in this pivotal Year 3, it’s him.

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Realistically, JJ Arcega-Whiteside is always going to be a disappointment versus his expectations. He’ll probably never record 1,000 yards in a season, develop into an every-game starter, and may seriously struggle to earn a second long-term contract with the team that drafted him. With that being said, it is still in the Philadelphia Eagles’ best interests to find a way to get him involved in the offense, get him touches when the starters need a rest, and optimize his abilities to the best of their abilities. If serving as a big-bodied slot/move tight end hybrid is how that happens, so be it.