January 19, 2022
The 2021 season was a mixed bag for the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver group, with Howie Roseman at times looking like a genius for not only landing Heisman winner DeVonta Smith, but getting an extra 2022 first-round pick in the process. At other times the Eagles GM looked like a joke for taking J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Jalen Reagor high in the two previous drafts, a pair of massive misses that more or less forced the Birds to take another wideout in the first round in 2021.
The good news for Roseman is that the third time appears to indeed be the charm, with Smith setting a new franchise record in receiving yards (916) to go along with his five touchdown receptions, all while showing off all the skills — the speed, hands and footwork — that you'd want to see from your No. 1 wideout. The other recent first- and second-round picks at the position? Well, not so much.
Reagor, the former TCU wideout the Eagles infamously took back in 2020 instead of Justin Jefferson, who went to the Vikings a pick later, finished the season with just 33 catches for 299 yards and two TDs, with a third of his yards coming in the first three weeks of the season. Making that worse is the fact that Reagor was healthy all season, and played in all 18 games. In the end, he finished with over 50 yards in a game just twice, and caught more than five passes just once, all the way back in Week 1.
But that only tells part of the story for Reagor, who also spent most of the season as the team's punt returner, and in the biggest game of the year, when the defense was finally starting to build some momentum, he muffed a punt against the Bucs, leading to a touchdown and all but putting the game out of reach. Unfortunately, that was hardly his only miscue in the game, as he nearly fumbled away another punt and misplayed several others, something that had become a trend over the course of the season.
"Certainly, heading into year three, [we] expected more from [WR] Jalen [Reagor] at this point," Roseman said on Wednesday. "We had a chance to sit down with him after the season and had an honest conversation about the things that he needs to develop and the things that we can help him develop to continue his growth, in terms of learning from anything. We have to do that. We have to continue to evolve.
"We kind of have to look at not only the things that maybe we don't like about our decision-making, not just talking about Jalen in this situation, but talking about as a whole, but also the things that we did well. I think that's part of continuing to grow in your job and in your profession."
Reagor was so bad, in fact, that he almost made people forget about Arcega-Whiteside, who at least contributed something to the offense in terms of his blocking — that is, when he wasn't getting called for offensive pass interference for setting a pick. Still, you'd like to see more from him given where he was drafted. JJAW finished the season with just two catches for 36 yards.
And that failure to grow from Reagor and Arcega-Whiteside led to the emergence of Quez Watkins as the team's No. 2 wideout, something he showed he's capable of doing with several highlight-reel catches this season, finishing third on the team with 43 receptions and 647 receiving yards (both behind Smith and Dallas Goedert) and leading the team in yards per reception.
If that seems like that's a steep drop-off from the Eagles' top receiver to everyone else, that's because it is. And that tends to happen when your offense is the most run-heavy unit in the NFL. With not nearly as many passes to go around, obviously the top guys are going to get the lion's share of targets, and that's certainly what happened in Philly this season.
Still, head coach Nick Sirianni said during his end-of-season press conference that he likes the group the Eagles have at wideout — of course, the guy who drafted them, his boss, was sitting right next to him, so what did you really expect?
In response to a question about whether or not the Birds would look to go after a top player at the position (like Calvin Ridley) to try to bolster the receiving corps around a developing Jalen Hurts — Roseman previously said the team plans to move forward with Hurts at QB and help him develop by putting talent around him — Sirianni launched into a long-winded answer that could've used a Chappelle's Show "Wrap-It-Up Box," basically saying they have their Nos. 1, 2 and 3 receivers on the roster already in Smith, Watkins and Reagor.
Not only did the coach assign positions to all three, something that was simultaneously surprising, refreshing and perhaps overly optimistic, but he might have shocked a lot of Eagles fans, who thought they saw Reagor play in his final game with the Birds in Tampa (even though the reality was always that if they gave JJAW three seasons, they're not going to give up on Reagor now, unless they can get something back).
Anyway, here's the full answer from Sirianni to Martin Frank's question on the team's receivers...
Q. Specifically with regard to wide receivers, you obviously came into the season with a really young group at wide receiver with WR DeVonta Smith, WR Quez Watkins and Jalen Reagor. I was just wondering what your evaluation of them, their growth, and if you guys feel like you need to go after a free agent or someone who can kind of take you over the top at that position, in particular?
NICK SIRIANNI: I feel really good about the wide receiver group as a whole. I think you have a number one guy in [WR] DeVonta Smith. I think he is a number one receiver, and he continues to get better. Why do I think he's a number one receiver? Because he can consistently win one-on-one, he can get the ball into his hands and make plays with the ball in his hand, maybe run a short pass. He catches everything. His competitive nature.
I don’t think that there are a lot of true No. 1 receivers in the NFL, and I think we have one that is going to continue to get better.
Then I look at [WR] Quez Watkins, as he's our No. 2 wide receiver. He has big-time speed, and he has a knack to make plays. Of course, you always want to get – the style of offense that we played this year didn't allow for Quez to get as many touches as he probably deserves, but we did everything we could do to win each individual game.
So, Quez has big-play ability in him. I think out of the No. 2 wide-outs I've been around in the NFL, he can be one of the best No. 2’s that I've been around in the NFL because of his skill set and because of his ability to make plays.
I think a lot of us talk about Jalen Hurts and his ability to just be very steady. Quez Watkins is very – and that's a trait that we all value in Jalen Hurts – Quez Watkins is the same way. He's not going to get too up, he's not going to get too down throughout the course of a game, throughout the course of a year.
I'm really pleased with him. To have two guys like that, that you really trust and you really are scheming open to try to make plays, that's a big positive.
Jalen Reagor, we want more production from Jalen Reagor and he has all the talent to do so. So, I like him in that No. 3 spot right now to be able to make plays because he has skill, he has talent. It's our job as coaches to get that skill and that talent out of him so it produces on the field. And it's our job as coaches to put him in position to succeed.
And that's a two-way street. I'm not by any means saying I'm taking all the blame or all the credit or whatever it is, because it's a two-way street, and Jalen has to make the plays when the opportunity arises.
But he does have extreme talent for what we are considering a No. 3 receiver – to be able to make plays.
And then, I really valued [WR] Greg Ward's contribution to the group. I can't say enough good things about Greg Ward. He's one of the main leaders on this team. He's one of the main leaders in that wide-out room.
It's through example of how he kind of goes about his business. For a guy to have 50 or 60 catches that he had last year and then take a little bit step back of the role that he had this year, but still be able to lead, that speaks volumes to what kind of person Greg Ward is. Each room needs a leader in that aspect.
Then you always need – again, we're kind of having this conversation, asking me about wide-outs, we're kind of painting the picture the same way, Howie and I would talk about it, what do you need for the room? You have that blocking element of [WR] J.J. [Arcega-Whiteside]. J.J. did a really good job in his role this year of our enforcer. Of our guy that would go out and get blocks when we needed him to pave the way for the No. 1 rush offense in the NFL. And I don't want to say pave the way. We know our offensive line and our tight ends and our backs pave the way. But that is a very underappreciated position in the blocking wide receiver, because those sometimes spring five-yard runs into 15-yard runs or 20-yard runs or 8-yard runs into 28-yard runs.
I'm pleased with this group. Again, you're not going to have the same statistical output when you're the type of offense that we were this year, but I am very pleased with this group. I know that this is a good group. Are we always going to look to add talent to the group and play-makers to the group? Of course. But I like where we sit right now as the wide receiver group, and I think we can continue to grow at that group because of the talent we have and the guys that we have in that room.
Got all that? OK, good. Now, some thoughts...
• Sirianni thinks DeVonta Smith is a No. 1 wideout who will only continue to get better. Absolutely no complaints with his assessment of the rookie. He'll be back, will get better, and I think he proved a lot of doubters — specifically the ones who thought he was too thin to play in the NFL — wrong.
• Sirianni says Quez Watkins is the No. 2 receiver. While I can't speak to him being like Hurts mentally, I do know that I'd like a little bit more from my No. 2 receiver. But his lack of touchdowns and big plays in 2021 might have more to do with the offense than anything else. Given the jump that he took between last season and this one, I'm comfortable seeing what he can bring next season as the No. 2 guy and a legitimate deep threat. If Hurts can improve throwing the ball down the field — and learns how to find Watkins when he's open — that could be a dangerous connection. A 1-2 punch of Smith and Watkins can be good enough, assuming the QB can get them the ball in big spots.
• Now this is where things start to go off the rails. The Eagles coach seemed to endorse Reagor as the team's No. 3 wideout moving forward, which — I'm not sure how you can do that after seeing what a liability he was this past season. It went beyond him not helping the team. There were more than a few times where he was actively hurting the team. Is there potential? In theory. But we're through two years with two different coaches, coordinators and QBs, and none have been able to bring out the best in Reagor. "But he does have extreme talent for what we are considering a No. 3 receiver – to be able to make plays," Sirianni said. That seems similar to what he said a moment earlier about Watkins, and honestly I'd feel infinitely better about this WR group if the Eagles went out and got someone else to be their No. 2 and bump Quez to the No. 3. He'd be a hell of a No. 3, and really I just don't want Reagor anywhere near this offense right now. I'd say recency bias is at play here, but Reagor wasn't really good at any point this season or last, so...
• The comments on Greg Ward and JJAW are... fine. I would've liked to have seen more Ward this season in place of Reagor, but we all know what Ward is. The bet here is that Roseman preferred Reagor out there in what was supposed to be a transition year, and hoped that he would develop into a legit player. But that never happened. And as for Arecega-Whiteside, Sirianni isn't wrong about his contributions in the run game. It's not the kind of thing you usually get praise for or that earns you a big payday, but the third-year wideout contributed all the same. Does it suck that he didn't turn out to be the red-zone machine everyone thought? Of course, but he's at least doing something. Calling him an "enforcer" might be a bit much, but I digress.
• And then there's the "but." After praising his own guys for 90% of the answer, Sirianni sneaks in that of course they're always going to look to upgrade the position. Thank god.
If developing Jalen Hurts is the plan — and that's what the Eagles are saying for now, at least until Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers becomes available — then the goal should be surrounding him with the right talent to succeed. They have the offensive line. They have the running backs. They have a stud tight end and even a No. 1 wideout.
Now, they should be looking to fill out that receiving corps behind Smith, as well as helping him and Watkins continue their development. If they can do all that — and that's a big IF given their mistakes in evaluating the position in the past — then perhaps next year they can be a bit more balanced on offense, something that will likely help them should they make the playoffs again.
To hear Roseman tell it, he doesn't care so much what the scheme looks like, as long as the team is winning games. And in Sirianni, he thinks he has the right coach to mold
"I think our goal is to win as many games as possible, and however that comes about is something that makes us happy," Roseman said. "I don't think I've ever walked into the locker room unhappy with a win. I think [Sirianni] and his staff do a great job of fitting to the personnel. It's kind of ironic because a year ago today was our first meeting with [Sirianni] and one of the things he said that really won us over is his scheme is going to be dependent on the players and personnel and he was going to utilize our personnel in the way that they would be able to maximize their talents and for us to win games."
He certainly did that in 2021. With some more talent on the roster, who knows what he can accomplish in 2022.