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February 21, 2017

Eagles' wide receiver focus in free agency and the draft will be on speed

What do the Philadelphia Eagles desperately need in their passing game? 

(Jeopardy music playing)

If you answered, "They have nothing in the way of a receiver who can 'take the top off a defense,' you are correct.

We would have also accepted, "Someone who can actually catch the football," or maybe, "Guys who can line up properly." But clearly, what the Eagles glaringly lacked last season (and in 2015, for that matter) was a receiver who can consistently make plays down the field.

Opposing defensive coordinators knew they could play their safeties close to the line of scrimmage the last two seasons, making it tougher on the run game as well as the short-to-intermediate passing game. They didn't have to respect any deep threats who could get behind their defense, and as a result, the Eagles were handicapped in regard to what they could accomplish offensively.

Last offseason, they certainly tried to add speed, although those efforts didn't quite go far enough.

  1. They signed Chris Givens, a player who ran a 4.41 at the Combine and had a 16.6 yards-per-catch average over his career.
  2. They signed T.J. Graham, who ran also ran a 4.41 at the Combine.
  3. After 53-man cuts, they signed undrafted rookie free agent Bryce Treggs, who ran a 4.39 at his Pro Day and had a 21.2 yards-per-catch average in his final season at Cal.
  4. They traded for size-speed freak Dorial Green-Beckham, who ran a 4.49 at 6'5, 237 at the Combine, and should theoretically be able to get down the field quickly and win contested catches.

Givens and Graham stunk in training camp, as they were unable to beat out the Eagles' woeful receiving corps for a job. Treggs made one big play and then vanished into thin air. And finally, "DGB" was a frustrating player who did not make plays down the field (his long reception on the season was 26 yards), and often played more like he was 5'11 than 6'5.

The Eagles expended almost no resources on the above four players. Givens and Graham were low-end free agent acquisitions, Treggs was a camp cut freebie, and DGB was acquired for the low, low cost of one Dennis Kelly.

Expect that to change in 2017. The Eagles will use resources this time around to add someone that opposing defenses have to respect as a down the field threat, whether that be in free agency, the draft, or both. We'll wait until after the Combine to propose a fuller list of receivers who make sense for the Eagles in regard to speed, but here are eight free agents who make the most sense:

DeSean Jackson, Redskins: Obviously, a DeSean return to Philly has been beaten to death already, but there's certainly an argument that he is the most prolific deep threat in NFL history. Since he entered the league in 2008, he has 37 receptions of 50-plus yards. The next closest player? Calvin Johnson, with 23.

Kenny Stills, Dolphins: Stills ran a 4.35 at the Combine, and has a career yards-per-catch average of 16.7. In four seasons in the NFL, Stills has 18 receptions of 40-plus yards. By comparison, Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, and DGB have combined for 10 over their careers.

Alshon Jeffery, Bears: Jeffery isn't known as a speed freak, but he's not exactly molasses either. Jeffery ran a 4.48 at the Combine, and unlike DGB, he uses every bit of his size to his advantage, winning contested catches down the field. In five seasons with the Bears, Jeffery has a healthy yards-per-catch average of 15.0 and has 17 catches of 40-plus yards. He would be an all-around No. 1 type receiver the Eagles have lacked for more than a decade.

Torrey Smith, 49ers: Smith is not a free agent, but he is almost certainly not going to be with the 49ers this season. Smith ran a 4.41 at the Combine, and in six pro seasons, he has 25 receptions of 40-plus yards.

Kenny Britt, Rams: Britt has become something of a late bloomer in his NFL career, and in his last three seasons in an atrocious Rams offense, he has 11 receptions of 40-plus yards, and a yards-per-catch average of 16.0.

Markus Wheaton, Steelers: Wheaton has a decent 14.1 yards-per-catch average over his career. In 2015, which looked like the start to a breakout before he was injured in 2016, Wheaton had a 17.0 yards per catch average and five receptions of 40-plus yards.

Marquise Goodwin, Bills: Goodwin has Olympic speed, as he ran a 4.27 at the Combine, although his production has been disappointing, especially in a Bills offense that liked to get vertical in 2016. Goodwin may make sense as a supplementary "lottery ticket."

Justin Hunter, Bills: Like Chris Givens and T.J. Graham, Hunter is a player who was drafted highly (second round), but has bounced around the league. Over a four-year career, he has a yards-per-catch average of 16.7, and he ran a 4.44 at the Combine. Hunter would yet another player of the "lottery ticket" variety.

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