Jeremy Maclin’s torn ACL and Riley Cooper’s racially insensitive comments dealt a pair of major blows to the Eagles’ receiving corps. With Maclin out for the season and Cooper’s future with the team up in the air, the Eagles need a young prospect or two to step up.
Obviously, DeSean Jackson is far and away the most talented receiver on the roster and his workload figures to increase. Maclin’s presence gave Jackson the luxury to run mostly vertical routes and quick screens. Now that the Eagles can’t count on the player opposite Jackson to gain consistent separation, Jackson may have to develop into a more complete receiver. He won’t become a possession receiver all of a sudden, but he will likely see more targets on short and intermediate routes.
Most of the other receivers on the roster are best in the slot. Jason Avant – despite his athletic limitations – remains a fantastic route runner and clutch 3rd down receiver at age 30. Damaris Johnson has been one of the breakout stars of training camp, but checks in at a tiny 5’8″, 175. Pleasant camp surprises Russell Shepard and Greg Salas are also better playing inside than out, although both have better size than Johnson. All those players will be competing against each other for roster spots.
Where the Eagles are really hurting, though, is at the outside receiver positions. The Eagles would love for former 2nd-round pick Arrelious Benn to emerge as a starting-caliber player, but has already been dogged by injuries in training camp. The only other player ideally suited to the outside is 6’7″ Ifeanyi Momah, but he hasn’t impressed beat writers in training camp. He hasn’t been able to separate from defensive backs and isn’t using his size to his advantage.
One player to keep a close eye on is Zach Ertz, the Eagles’ second round rookie tight end out of Stanford. Ertz is running behind James Casey and Brent Celek as the team’s third tight end, but has the skill set to split out wide and carve out a nice role for himself in the passing game. As Stanford’s go-to receiver, Ertz is comfortable playing as a detached tight end and even as a split end or flanker. Despite his 6’5″, 250 pound frame, he runs excellent routes and displays soft hands. He has the speed to challenge defenses vertically and would offer excellent blocking on the edge. He’s a more attractive option than Momah on the outside if Arrelious Benn can’t stay healthy.
The Eagles may try to fit Jason Avant or even Greg Salas into an outside role, but both are natural inside receivers. Without a lot of talent to work with, the Eagles will have to get creative when looking for Jackson’s replacement. In doing so, the team will likely have to ask players to carry out assignments that they are not comfortable with. Before any other devastating news strikes the team’s decimated receiving corps, here is an assessment of its players’ roster hopes:
Outside receivers – Expect the Eagles to carry 2-3 outside receivers on the roster
DeSean Jackson – 100% chance of making the roster
Riley Cooper – 70% chance. He’s definitely talented enough to make the team. The Eagles publicly insist that they won’t cut him for using a racial slur, but he’s not out of the woods yet. He’s causing quite a stir in the locker room, and while the Eagles are counting on him to start, he’s not too good to cut, either.
Arrelious Benn – 60% chance. If healthy, Benn is good enough to make the team, especially considering how thin the Eagles are.
Ifeanyi Momah – 18% chance
Dave Ball – 1% chance
Will Murphy – 1% chance
Inside receivers - expect the Eagles to keep 2 inside receivers on the roster
Damaris Johnson – 85% chance. Johnson should be a dynamite return man and dangerous x-factor on offense when Chip Kelly gets him the ball in space.
Jason Avant – 60% chance. Given the emergence of Damaris Johnson and Russel Shepard, Avant has a fight on his hands for a roster spot. He doesn’t have the explosive run-after-catch ability that Kelly wants in his receivers, but he can still make plays.
Russel Shepard – 40% chance. Shepard has been very impressive in camp and could follow in Bryce Brown’s footsteps as a high school stud-turned college dud-turned NFL asset. On the hoof, he looks like an ideal practice squad player, but the Eagles might have to elevate him to active roster if they want to make sure they don’t lose him.
Greg Salas – 14% chance
Nick Miller – 1% chance. Miller is more than just a camp body, but the Eagles have more explosive versions of him in Damaris Johnson and Russel Shepard.