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March 08, 2022

What they're saying: Will Eagles invest in top free agent wide receiver? Draft one in first round?

The Eagles could really do anything to upgrade their receiving corps...

Eagles NFL
DeVonta_Smith_5_Eagles_49ers_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeVonta Smith.

The latest Eagles debate, as free agency and later the NFL Draft loom, is whether the Birds will be prominent players in what is a relatively deep wide receiver class — both among free agents and prospects.

There are a lot of factors to consider, of course. First, the Eagles do have limited resources for the open market. With somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million or less to spend, they could be priced out on some of the biggest names. There is also the attractiveness of Philadelphia for receivers. The team threw less than nearly every other team in 2021 and looks like it will be a run-first offense again in 2022.

As far as the draft goes, the team has taken JJ Arcega Whiteside, Jalen Reagor and DeVonta Smith in the first two rounds in recent years to mixed results. Will they use a top pick on the position for a fourth straight draft?

We are left with a bit of a chicken or egg conundrum. Do the Eagles pass less because they have crappy receivers (aside from Smith of course)? Or do they pass less because they have an elite offensive line and a mobile quarterback who can make plays with his legs?

What they decide to do, and how they prioritize the position will help us find the answer to that in the coming weeks. And that's the jumping off point for our latest 'What they're saying about the Eagles.'

Who can they afford?

Bo Wulf | The Athletic

The Athletic did a deep dive into just where the Eagles can improve in free agency and Wulf takes a look at the wide receiver spot in detail. Following reports that Allen Robinson is seeking $20 million (which is probably too rich for the Birds), he'll join a list including Devante Adams, Chris Godwin and Mike Williams as too pricy and splashy for Philly. So who could they realistically target then?

Wulf looks at several categories, from worth a shot (like Jamison Crowder), to bargain hunting (like Zach Pascal) and wideouts worth closely monitoring (like Russell Gage). But there are some guys he can see them being aggressive for as well:

• Willing to be aggressive for: The expectation is the Eagles will monitor the wide receiver market, wait to see whose cost appears to be less than expected and go from there. After all, the Eagles can afford to be patient because any capable wide receiver would present an upgrade. But if they’re not playing at the very top of the market, three players stand out as ones they might be willing to make a move on early. Allen Robinson is coming off his least productive season in some time (38 catches for 410 yards in 12 games, albeit with bad quarterback play … again). Was that the start of his decline or is there a big bounce-back season coming? Signing Alshon Jeffery from a bad-quarterbacked Bears team worked once upon a time; maybe Roseman goes back to that well.

If Amari Cooper does indeed end up on the open market, the Eagles are likely to have some degree of interest, as they did when Cooper was traded by the Raiders in 2018. Going heavy on the Alabama connection with Smith might make sense — and Cooper won’t be factored into any compensatory pick calculation — but this situation screams buyer beware.

Finally, Christian Kirk has been linked to the Eagles as a potential target. Playing in a pass-happy offense, Kirk caught 77 passes for 982 yards and five touchdowns in 2021 while playing primarily in the slot. But he’s not necessarily a slot-only receiver. Though he ranked sixth in the league in slot percentage in 2021 (78.4 percent of his snaps came inside), he only took 15.2 percent of his snaps in the slot in 2020. Stylistically, though, he would still leave the Eagles without a bigger, physical wide receiver. Maybe they don’t need one. [The Athletic]

A WR master plan?

Martin Frank | Delaware Online

Frank outlines his best case scenario for the Eagles at wideout in a piece outlining how the combine has impacted the Birds this offseason. It's a bit of a complicated set of circumstances, but bare with us. Frank wants the Eagles trade back in the draft and take Alabama wideout Jameson Williams, who is likely to fall out of the top half of the draft due to his torn ACL in the National title game. He also thinks they should sign a free agent to compliment the draft choice:

It's likely that Williams won't be ready for the start of the season while he recovers from his ACL tear. 

But the Eagles can still draft him, give him time to recover and develop while signing a free agent on a one-year prove-it deal for a manageable salary. That could be [JuJu] Smith-Schuster, who only played in five games last season for the Steelers before suffering a shoulder injury.

Smith-Schuster is a top slot receiver, with 111 receptions in 2018 and 97 more in 2020. 

That way, even if Williams isn't ready until midway through the season or later, the Eagles would still improve their WR corps with Smith-Schuster or someone else. [Delaware Online]

A bold first rounder

NFL Insiders |

ESPN's NFL insiders made a bold, outside the box prediction for each team in the NFL — only their prediction for the Eagles is neither of those things, and frankly seems more likely by the day for a team with a glaring need and three first-round picks. Still, it's worth taking a gander at their insight:

Get ready to draft yet another first-round receiver

The Eagles have three first-round picks, and there are a bevy of wideouts projected to go around the middle of the round such as Ohio State's Garrett Wilson, Arkansas' Treylon Burks, USC's Drake London, Alabama's Jameson Williams and (also) Ohio State's Chris Olave. The team has tried to boost the wideout corps early and often over the past few years and has wound up with ... Jalen Reagor and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. Now, DeVonta Smith's rookie season was promising despite the run-heavy profile the team took on with Jalen Hurts under center. But whether you consider Hurts a long-term solution or not, the team needs more firepower to exploit teams that stack up against the run, as the Bucs did to Philly in the playoffs.

Philadelphia continues to get perilously close to major star roster turnover as players like Lane Johnson, Jason Kelce and Fletcher Cox get closer to retirement age. They already lost Brandon Brooks to retirement this offseason, and Kelce is a free agent. There are plenty of legitimate arguments for how they should spend their treasure trove of picks. But the best way to figure out what they have in Hurts is to put another top-notch wideout into the equation -- perhaps teamed with a veteran free agent such as Smith-Schuster or DJ Chark Jr. to take some early snaps while the rookie adjusts to the NFL. []

Context matters

Zach Berman | The Athletic

Let's return quickly to the Athletic for a quick hit from a piece Berman did weighing whether the Eagles would add another first round wideout to their roster in the draft. He simply states the obvious — that the context matters (meaning he thinks they should, and will). Here's more:

In an ordinary year with one first-round pick, it might not be as much of a discussion. There would surely be an edge rusher or a cornerback who presents value where they’re drafting. But the Eagles have three first-round picks, a luxury that changes the equation.

General manager Howie Roseman will likely be active in trying to trade picks. Yet when handicapping where the value might be in the teens — the Eagles own picks No. 15, 16 and 19 — it would be impossible to avoid a conversation about wide receivers. With uncertainty about 2020 first-round pick Jalen Reagor’s ability to be a top-of-the-depth chart player after two seasons, the Eagles can use help in a group headlined by 2021 first-round pick DeVonta Smith.

“When you’ve got three ones, I think all options are on the table,” said NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former Eagles scout. “When you study Howie and how he operates and how that personnel department operates, you know there’s going to be at least one if not two (linemen) if they keep all three of those picks. … But yeah, I think there’s a strong case to be made for one of those wide receivers." [The Athletic]

How good can DeVonta be?

Reuben Frank | NBC Sports Philly

DeVonta Smith was the Eagles best wideout last year and he was (in a 17 game season) the best rookie they've ever drafted statistically. But Reuben Frank believes that is just the start. If the Birds correctly upgrade the receiving corps and if Jalen Hurts improves his play just a little bit, Smith should be a 1,000 yard receiver or better in 2022. Here's a little more on why Smith could take a leap in Year 2:

Something else that limited Smith was the Eagles' desire to force-feed Jalen Reagor, with disastrous results. Reagor had 57 targets, and if those targets had been spread evenly over players who can actually catch a football and make plays -- Smith, Dallas Goedert, Quez Watkins, Kenny Gainwell -- it would have helped the entire offense, Smith included. The Eagles tried everything to involve Reagor, and that won't happen in 2022.

Smith got 104 targets in 17 games, and that was tied for 37th in the NFL. He had five games with four or fewer targets, which just should never happen. In games he had at least six targets, he averaged 63 yards. Over a full season, that's just under 1,100 yards. He averaged 8.8 yards per target, so let's say he was just 20th in the league in targets with the exact same yards-per-target figure. Hunter Renfrow was 20th this past season with 128 targets. With the same production, if Smith got 128 targets, he'd have 1,126 yards. What if he was 10th? Now he has 1,284 yards. More targets equals more production. The Eagles have to do better getting the ball in Smith's hands.

One other thing that will help Smith -- and this goes back to Reagor -- is that the Eagles know they have to upgrade the wide receiver room, and if they draft a WR who can contribute and/or sign a free agent who can contribute along with the anticipated continued improvement by Watkins, now all of a sudden, defenses will have more to worry about and they won't be able to slide all their coverage to Smith.

Plus just having a year under his belt in the NFL will help. We've all seen players make a big jump from Year 1 to Year 2, and Smith is the kind of serious-minded kid who's obsessed with working hard and improving his route running, beating press coverage, understanding defenses and catching the ball, and that should translate into increased production as well. [NBCSP]

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