August 08, 2017
It seems strange that the Eagles leading wideout each of the last two seasons, Jordan Matthews, a player who unquestionably has a strong relationship with second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, would be in danger of losing his starting spot to Nelson Agholor, a former first-round pick who up until this spring when he started getting reps in the slot seemed like he could be in danger of not making the roster.
But, just a few days before the preseason opener, here we are.
Last season, in a down year but his first playing in Pederson's system and alongside Carson Wentz, Matthews posted 73 receptions for 804 yards and three touchdowns. Even though it was arguably the worst statistical season of his career, that's still better than what Agholor has posted in his first two seasons combined – 59 receptions, 648 yards and three touchdowns.
Following a move to the inside this summer – and a strong showing when given that opportunity, something that shouldn't go unmentioned here – the 24-year-old from USC not only seems like more of a lock than ever to make the roster but also appears to be in a better place mentally ... and primed to steal some snaps in the slot away from Matthews, and perhaps supplant him as the starter..
"Every spot is up for competition," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said on Monday. "The way we kind of roll things is we're always looking for guys who make plays. Nelson [Agholor] has had a real strong spring and camp. So the way we do it is it's kind of by play. Sometimes we'll switch guys up. We'll see what a defense does from a coverage standpoint, and then we want to attack that coverage. Then, within that coverage we have matchups, and within those matchups, there are certain matches that fit certain guys better than others.
"So Jordan – we play to the players' strengths. And the good thing is, we have some players who have strengths to play to."
The most interesting thing about that? Reich wasn't asked about Nelson Agholor. He was asked whether or not Matthews' spot was open for competition. Like many covering the team, the Birds coordinator can't seem to help but gush about that way Agholor has looked this offseason, something that as recently as January seemed unlikely, to say the least.
A day later, Doug Pederson echoed those sentiments, but also said that he doesn't "foresee" a reduced role for Matthews, despite his offensive coordinator leaving the door open for such a possibility when he said on Monday he didn't know "how it's going to play out" and that the role for each is yet "to be determined."
I'm calling B.S. on Pederson. And here's why.
The reason the Eagles head coach gave to support his theory that Matthews' role will remain the same in 2017? Because Agholor, who spent his first two seasons on the outside, can play both spots (something they also believe to be the case for Matthews, even though the vast majority of his snaps have come in the slot).
"The one thing about Nelson that I like and that I've seen, he can play inside and outside," Pederson said. "So you can get him some touches on the outside, you can get him some touches on the inside. It goes back to what I said many times with our offense. We move these guys around by position, that they have to know inside and outside.
"Nelson is going to get his touches. I'm excited to watch him perform again and get his confidence level back to where it needs to be."
But there are only so many touches to go around, something that was complicated by the arrival of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in free agency – not to mention a pair of rookie wideouts taken in the middle rounds of the draft.
Agholor may be getting all the headlines for potentially taking snaps away from Matthews, but it's really those two free agent signees who pose the greatest threat to his snap count. In 2016, Matthews and Agholor were the teams top two receivers, earning the lion's share of the snaps at wideout.
Here's a look at how the snaps played out last season:
This year, those starters' snaps are going to belong to Jeffery and Smith – they were the ones listed as the starters on the Eagles most recent (albeit still unofficial) depth chart. Already, it's beginning to look like a reduced role for Matthews before even mentioning the impact Agholor's emergence in the slot could have on him.
No matter how it plays out, it's nearly impossible to envision Matthews leading Eagles receivers in snaps per game, like he did last season with 62.4 per game played (and like Pederson apparently believes he can do again).
When you break it down, it's really quite simple.
Let's say the Eagles again hover around 2,800 total snaps for their wideouts. How might that break down by season's end, assuming no major injuries?
If Jeffery plays 900 snaps, which is right around what Matthews/Agholor would have posted had they played all 16 games, that leaves 1,900 to split between Smith, Matthews, Agholor, rookie Mack Hollins and whatever other receiver(s) they decide to keep.
Since Smith is penciled in to start opposite Jeffery on the other side, let's say he finishes with around 750 snaps, a slight increase over what he averaged the last two seasons with the 49ers, a team who didn't throw the ball nearly as often as the Eagles.
Now we're down to 1,150 remaining snaps. And guess what? Even if Agholor and Matthews split them down the middle (575 each) and didn't leave any for the other Eagles wideouts, that's still about 300 fewer snaps each.
Of course, it's not going to unfold exactly like that, but you can now see what Reich meant when he offered up the following in response to a question about Matthews' role going forward and how it compares to the one he played last season:
"I mean, I think, right now, the whole receiving room is more competitive. So yeah, I think it is a little bit different than last year [when Matthews was the primary slot receiver]."
So while Agholor's emergence in the slot may mean fewer snaps on the inside for Matthews, it's not the main reason he's going to see his playing time take a hit in 2017 – and that's going to happen, whether Pederson wants to believe it or not.
His reduced role is simply a product of the team's massive upgrades at his position, upgrades whose mere presence should allow him to fly under the radar for the first time in a while. How that helps his productivity when actually he is on the field remains to be seen, but there's a decent chance Matthews, who was miscast* as the team's top receiving option over the last few years, thrives now that the focus of the defense will be else where.
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