Examining the NFC East: The Wide Receivers

The Eagles have gotten better at WR with DeVonta Smith but remain at the bottom of the NFC East
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Our annual series examining the NFC East from a positional perspective with the help of league personnel sources continues with the wide receivers, a position group that was a disaster for the Eagles in the last two seasons of the Doug Pederson era.

Despite spending significant assets at the position in the form of a second-round pick in J.J. Arcega-Whiteside in 2019 and first-rounder Jalen Reagor in 2020, the Eagles didn't have a wideout surpass 600 yards in either of the past two seasons, an almost unthinkable level of futility in the modern pass-happy NFL.

The 600-yard barrier is often cited but that's just a number pointing to the far bigger problem - the lack of player development at the position.

Injuries to descending veterans Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson, once star WRs, played a big part in the lack of production, but others never stepped up with afterthoughts like Greg Ward and Travis Fulgham bringing more to the table than premium draft picks.

So far, anyway.

The position coach was a revolving door under Pederson with five in five years: Greg Lewis, Mike Groh, Gunter Brewer, Carson Walch, and Aaron Moorehead.

The context of that, however, points to the front office because Pederson never wanted to fire Lewis or Walch and promoted Groh from WR coach to offensive coordinator for the 2018 season. Moorehead will bridge the Pederson and Nick Sirianni regimes but will no doubt be on a short leash since the team was actively looking for coaches at the position before circling back to Moorehead.

The new mandate starts with getting rookie first-round pick DeVonta Smith up to speed as quickly as possible and the hope his presence allows Reagor to start to shine after a disappointing rookie season.

From there Ward, Fulgham, and to a lesser extent Quez Watkins, John Hightower, and JJAW, the latter likely being down to his last chance, giving an opportunity to get involved as the third WR for a Sirianni offense that wants more speed on the field and that means more 11 personnel (three WRs).

Eagles WR J.J. Arcega-Whiteside

J.J. Arcega-Whiteside

Sirianni, a WR himself in college at Mount Union, has stressed the ability for the receivers to be interchangeable but that's offseason talk.

Judging by OTAs, Smith might move around between flanker (Z), split end (X), and the slot but the others are more limited.

It seems like the plan will be Smith and Reagor as the outside WRs when only two are on the field and from there Reagor will slide inside if either Fulgham or Arcega-Whiteside deserve playing time or stay outside if Ward or a darkhorse like Watkins fights their way on the field.

"There’s young energy," Moorehead said of his WR room. "That’s the thing I tell them. We have to have energy. It can’t be the old grumpy, the O-line guys are older, they’ll be grumpy walking around here, we have to be the young energy of the offensive room. When we’re walking around, it’s smiles, it’s juice all day.

"And the guys, they should have young, fresh legs, and they should be running around all day. We have guys that can run, guys that can catch and we have to be able to, just the consistency day in, day out, is the thing with young players that you have to continue to preach."

For now, the Eagles remain at the bottom of the division at the position until potential turns into production.

4. - Philadelphia Eagles: Smith is different than any other receiver the Eagles have and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner should be the best WR the Eagles have had since Jeffery was healthy rather quickly.

The former Alabama star is as skinny in the lower body as advertised so there's always going to be a concern about potential injury but he's also very long with an amazing catch radius and the overall athleticism to stand out immediately.

Smith should also be the domino that allows Reagor to settle into the more comfortable role as a No. 2 and there are enough bodies and coaches who understand the position to generate some production out of the cast of thousands for the No. 3 role.

Eagles rookie WR DeVonta Smith at practice on June 4, 2021

DeVonta Smith

It's still not great at the position but it's a lot better.

"I know Smith can play. I guess you have some concerns over the body but the key to me is the other guys. Reagor is a manufactured-touch guy who can't run routes. Maybe the new staff helps J.J.," an ex-AFC personnel evaluator said.

3. - Washington Football Team: Terry McLaurin has quietly developed into a real No. 1 and with a high-volume thrower - Ryan Fitzpatrick - in the mix now, McLaurin's numbers could explode.

The WFT also added a better complement by prying away Curtis Samuel from Carolina where he developed into a really good slot receiver in 2020. McLaurin and Samuel were also teammates together in college at Ohio State.

The biggest issue is the No. 3 WR on paper, Adam Humphries, is also best-suited for slot work so the goal will be to get third-round rookie Dyami Brown up to speed as quickly as possible to better balance things.

The depth is also impressive with Cam Sims and Antonio Gandy-Golden.

"It's a talented group," an NFC scout said. "I really like McLaurin. I think he's one of the most underrated receivers in the league. They had to use him underneath too much last season with the QB issues."

2. - New York Giants: The Giants overhauled the position and it looks good on paper after the additions of free agent Kenny Golladay and first-round pick Kadarius Toney.

Golladay is an imposing X wideout with the speed to get vertical and also come down with contested catches while Toney will likely fit in the slot and bring more eyewash to the offense with potential gimmicks on the table using motion to get defenses unsettled.

The holdovers are Darius Slayton, a big-play threat on the outside, and Sterling Shepard, a solid slot option which gives the Giants a little more time with Toney.

"I think they reached a bit on Toney to be honest," a former AFC scout said. "They wanted Smith and did the trade back but he's an explosive guy and if you're disciplined and use [Toney] right, he could really help the offense. If Golladay plays with consistency it will be one of the best groups in the league if [Daniel] Jones does his part.

"Shepard and Slayton are solid."

1. - Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys arguably have the best trio of WRs in the NFL with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb. Mix in a healthy Dak Prescott and the fireworks in North Texas should return.

Cooper remains one of the best route-runners in the NFL and Gallup is the contested-catch guy down the field. 

The scary part is that Lamb, a 2020 first-round pick, is likely going to be the best of the three after starting out in the slot. The lone black mark being you would like to see all three cut down on the concentration lapses and the occasional drops.

"Pick your poison," an AFC scout said. "Cooper is always open and Lamb is special. I don't think Gallup is as good as some do but as a No. 3 that's tough to beat."

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John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on both PhillyVoice.com and YouTube. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen

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.