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August 03, 2017

Entering make-or-break season, Eagles WR Nelson Agholor looks up for the challenge

The 2017 NFL season is going to be a do-or-die kind of year for Philadelphia Eagles wideout Nelson Agholor, a former first-round pick entering his third season who many hoped was going to break out in 2016 following a subpar rookie year. 

That, however, is not what happened

Agholor, the 20th-overall pick in 2015, has caught just 59 passes for 648 yards and three touchdowns in his two seasons. The USC product was the third receiver taken in his draft but currently ranks eighth in receptions and 10th in receiving yards among the other receivers in his class (and he drops to 14th in both categories when you include tight ends and running backs).

A disappointing 2016 season appeared to be the beginning of the end for Agholor, who was bumped from his starting spot when the team signed free agents Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. But so far this training camp, his second alongside Carson Wentz and head coach Doug Pederson (and his first under new WR coach Mike Groh), the 24-year-old has looked more comfortable.

And that's shown in his play.

“I think the things that impressed me with Nelson are two things,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Thursday. “One, the number of big plays he's making. Two, the consistency in which he's making them. Not only making the big plays but the consistency of which he's doing everything: his route running, ball catching. He's just at a good spot right now.”

But are we sure it’s not just because of a struggling group of cornerbacks?

“I don't think so,” Reich said when asked if the secondary’s struggles make it tougher to evaluate receivers. “I mean, it's very competitive out here all the time. Every player that's here deserves to be here. You have to fight and scratch for every rep, for every play. You have to prove what you can do on every play.

“We're looking for receivers that are coming off the ball, making plays when they're coming their way. It's very competitive on both sides. So I think that's helping us develop at the receiver position.”

In Agholor’s case, that development has been two-fold. 

First, there’s the confidence, something we saw Agholor struggle with in Year 2. But heading into Year 3, that doesn’t seem like nearly as big of an issue. For example, there was the final play of Thursday’s live-contact practice, when Agholor beat rookie corner Rasul Douglas for a deep touchdown. 

What followed was something you probably wouldn’t have seen from Agholor during the last season, when his on-field struggles boiled over into  frustration and dumb mental mistakes and eventually led to him being a healthy scratch against the Packers as he tried to “get out of [his] own head.”

Here’s how it unfolded, as can be found in Jimmy Kempski’s practice notes

After the aforementioned practice-ending TD grab by Agholor, the other 10 players on the Eagles' offense lined up in bowling pin formation. Agholor rolled the ball at them, and they all fell down. This is now legal in the NFL.

While Agholor was the one doing the bowling, it was another Eagles wideout responsible for the planning.

“It’s all [Jordan] Matthews, man,’’ Agholor said, according to The Philadelphia Daily News. “He created it. That man’s a mastermind. He loves celebrations. I love touchdowns. We love touchdowns. He loves celebrations.

“He said ‘The next touchdown we get we’re going to do it.’ I thought it was kind of cool.”

Still, if Agholor was in the same mental state as he was during the 2016 season, a celebration like that, especially in practice, would’ve seemed completely out of place. 

As Reich pointed out after practice, it’s also been about the consistency he’s seen from Agholor – perhaps the confidence to bowl over his teammates comes from the fact that he’s looked so much better this offseason. 

Or maybe the confidence is what’s leading to his newfound success.

Either way, it’s working. And it’s showing on more than just a play here or there. Here’s another one from earlier in Thursday’s practice:

On one off-target throw from Carson Wentz, Agholor reached back and was able to make the grab. A season ago, if Wentz's passes weren't on the money, his receivers almost never bailed him out with a difficult catch. Perhaps that will change to some degree this year.

Algholor has looked strong throughout this offseason, dating back to OTAs, when the Eagles did something somewhat surprising with their fastest player.

They moved him to the slot. And almost immediately, you could see the difference.

“I’ll tell you, he’s been explosive in there," Pederson said of Agholor at the conclusion of OTAs. "He’s made some big plays for us in there this spring. And his confidence level is high right now. I’m excited to see him grow in that position, and it’s been valuable for him.”

His success, however, didn’t just come in the slot. And it wasn’t just Pederson who saw it either. 

“I thought Nelson played extremely well in the slot in the spring,” Reich said recently. “I thought he played well outside. I thought he had a great spring. I think what everybody saw was true out here on the field and in the room.”

The arrival of training camp also meant the return of Jordan Matthews, whose absence during OTAs was one of the biggest reasons (aside from the team’s newly-added receivers) that Agholor got an extended look in the slot. But Agholor has continued to get looks in the slot (as well as on the outside).

That versatility alone should help him stick around for at least this season, one that many thought would see Agholor in a different uniform.

Whether or not he completely turns it around – and becomes the receiver Eagles fans thought they were getting back on draft night two-plus years ago – remains to be seen. 

If you think that's doubtful, you're not alone. But, hey, this is a definite step in the right direction.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

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