Consistently excellent and healthy wide receiver play has become a foreign concept to the Philadelphia Eagles over the last couple of seasons outside the club’s Super Bowl run in 2017.
But, for the first time in a very long time, the team projects to have a long-term solution to the franchise’s woes identifying an alpha to their wide receiver room.
The selection of Heisman trophy winner DeVonta Smith gives the Eagles their most decorated difference-maker at the receiver position, arguably since acquiring Terrell Owens from the San Francisco 49ers in 2004.
Drawing comparisons to Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison, Smith injects a persona the Eagles’ group of pass-catchers has lacked. He is a prime candidate for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
The minute Smith laces up his cleats and steps out onto the field at Novacare Complex for the start of training camp on Wednesday is the exact moment the Eagles’ void for a No.1 receiver is filled. The rest of the wideouts can now fall into place and settle into more suitable roles comfortable for their skillsets.
Jalen Reagor, last year’s first-round pick, gets his very first training camp experience coming up. With no injury delaying his learning curve, as this past season, the second-year product out of TCU is in a much better situation to thrive in.
The Eagles have done their part to put the wheels in motion for Reagor to be more productive in year two.
Yes, Reagor will probably always have to hear about Justin Jefferson in Philadelphia until he earns his keep, but with Smith being the team’s top dog now and all eyes laser-focused on him, the pressure is off of Reagor.
Travis Fulgham, the Eagles’ leading receiver in 2020, is back and ready to prove his productivity was no fluke. After being inexplicably benched for Alshon Jeffery, the 25-year-old looks to maximize his opportunity to impress a fresh new coaching staff instead of one that was emotionally tied to an over-the-hill Super Bowl hero.
Nick Sirianni’s background in wide receiver development, dating back to his days with the San Diego Chargers as the position coach, should be music to Eagles fans' ears. Guys like Keenan Allen, T.Y. Hilton, Zach Pascal, Michael Pittman Jr., Mike Williams, and Dwayne Bowe were molded on his watch.
The three receivers mentioned above figure to be atop of the Eagles depth chart. The real intrigue around the receiver position, other than the reasons given, is how the rest of the group pans out.
WR1: DeVonta Smith, John Hightower
WR2: Jalen Reagor, Quez Watkins
WR3: Travis Fulgham, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside
SLOT: Greg Ward, Michael Walker, Jhamon Ausbon
The drafting of Smith is the most significant change to the group. Having a player that has the talent to be the alpha of the wide receiver room and the track record of staying healthy and on the field is something the hopefully will make the Eagles rest easier.
Sirianni will have a pivotal impact on these young wideouts. Guys like Reagor, Fulgham, Arcega-Whiteside, Hightower, and Watkins, who flashed talent at some level of football but need extra focus to round out their games, are in a good spot working with Sirianni.
The Eagles' first-year head coach knows how to tailor matchups to his receiver’s advantage while putting them in the best position to succeed on the field.
Those aspects of Sirianni’s coaching have lacked from the previous staff when handling wide receivers. The difference should become evident right away once the season begins.
HIGHLIGHT REEL: The easy answer to this is Smith. It’s hard to fathom a world where Smith doesn’t meet expectations given his talent and performing exceptionally well in college football’s biggest stage.
Why not Reagor, then?
SI.com Eagle Maven reported a month ago that Reagor was at 191 pounds, which is the ideal playing weight the Eagles envisioned for him. With less pressure on his shoulders, a clean bill of health, and a quarterback that favored him as his top target (20-percent target share with Jalen Hurts under center, which was first on the team), the stars are aligning for Reagor to breakout.
Teams will zero in on Smith, Goedert, and Fulgham in 2021, allowing Reagor to likely line up versus the opposition’s third-best corner majority of his snaps out of the gate.
Everything is in favor of the second-year wide receiver improving. It’s up to Reagor to do his part now.
Smith, Reagor, and most likely Fulgham are locks to make the team. With the new offense leaning more towards 11 personnel, it’s probably safe to assume six wide receivers will be on the roster heading into Week 1, though special teams will factor into the roster construction.
The competition between Greg Ward, Quez Watkins, John Hightower, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Michael Walker, and Jhamon Ausborn for the final three spots brings intrigue when you put some thought into it.
Ward has been the Eagles' most reliable wide receiver the last two seasons. It should be a no-brainer he remains as the team’s WR4. Not only does he bring reliability to a position that’s lacked it, but he’s the veteran of the room, and his chemistry with Hurts was evident the moment the quarterback took over.
Hightower’s one-trick pony skillset was everything the Eagles wanted to give Carson Wentz and his deep ball. When Wentz was the quarterback, Hightower saw the field. When Hurts became quarterback, Watkins replaced Hightower.
Watkins’ skillset is better suited to fit the passer Hurts is, and the two had chemistry. Hightower suited Wentz better, which may lead to him being the odd man out.
Jeffrey Lurie forced his hand with Arcega-Whiteside selection in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, but he will have a hard time earning a spot.
ROCKY: THE LONGSHOT
Michael Walker would be considered a long-shot to make the team. If you asked the casual fan who Walker even was, they most likely wouldn’t even have a clue.
The Eagles, who have struggled to find a legitimate returner since Darren Sproles, may have found one in Walker, who signed in June after a taste of the NFL with Jacksonville and successful return career at Boston College.
WHO STAYS ON THE 53?
Smith, Reagor, Fulgham, Ward, Watkins, and Walker.
Hightower (perhaps to the practice squad), Arcega-Whiteside, and Ausbon.
The surprise here is Walker making the team over Hightower, which may be to the dismay of many.
Conor Myles covers the Philadelphia Eagles for SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-hosts the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast on Bleav Podcast Network. Reach Conor at ConorMylesSI@gmail.com or Twitter: @ConorMylesSI
Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.