Catching On

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4/22/14

By GORDON GLANTZ

Gordonglantz50@gmail.com

@Managing2Edit

GORDONVILLE – It is better to give than it is to receive.

Yeah, well, maybe on the path to spiritual redemption, but not in the NFL.

There, in a modern-day survival-of-the-fittest model: the team that receives more than it gives away comes out on top.

By jettisoning pro bowl receiver DeSean Jackson, who promptly enlisted with the division-rival Washington Redskins, the Eagles left themselves an obvious hole in a receiving corps that seemed set.

Some felt they gave Jackson away, but that can’t be completely accessed until we know what they receive – by way of receivers – in the pending draft (May 8-10).

When Riley Cooper (17.8 yard average on 47 catches, including 8 touchdowns) was re-signed, as was Jeremy Maclin, it seemed the Eagles had the perfect pieces in place around Jackson. Veteran Jason Avant was even released, seemingly because his salary exceeded fourth-receiver money.

Then, after the Jackson bombshell, the whole picture changed.

At present, a once-clear picture suddenly looks a little murky.

Maclin has been a good, but not great player, but he missed all of last season with a torn knee ligament (the second since his college days). Cooper, it could be argued, had his career year because of space created by Jackson’s presence.

The holdovers on the roster – players like Damaris Johnson, Jeff Maehl, B.J. Cunningham, etc.  – are either the best-kept secrets in the league or merely placeholders.

The team added the quintessential utility back in Darren Sproles, but is unclear if Kelly plans to use him as a slot receiver or as a much-needed option out of the backfield for less-than-mobile quarterback Nick Foles on obvious passing downs.

No matter what the role is for Sproles, who boasts such a full bag of tricks – including return skills – it is not likely Kelly will limit him to just being a slot receiver.

Top of the list

The general feeling, with what it is purported to be a draft class of incoming receivers that will make history, is that Eagles will retool with at least one – but maybe as many as three – at various points in the draft.

They can do so with a clear conscience, as the draft is so deep at receiver that one could theoretically be grabbed with each and every pick under their patented best-player-available explanation.

That won’t happen – too many glaring needs remain, particularly on the defensive side of the ball – but it is likely they will draft some receivers that fans can immediately dial up on You Tube and get excited about while watching clips that are more intriguing than pancake blocks.

Before we start naming names, a word of caution for rookie receivers is in order. No matter how talented – how freakish their size-speed ratio and vertical leaps – there is an adjustment to the NFL and the nuances of more complicated passing games. The defensive backs are equally athletic and more physical than in college, and the ball is coming out faster – and often with more velocity – from the quarterback.

In this sense, the Eagles are taking a gamble that they will get DeSean Jackson production, even if they spend their first-round pick (No. 22 overall) on the best stud wide receiver on the board.

The jewel of the class, Sammy Watkins of Clemson, is pegged to go in the top 5-10 picks. Most credible mock drafts slot him at No. 5, to the Oakland Raiders.

Next?

There are loud whispers that the Eagles are enamored with Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, who provided a big target (6-5, 225 pounds) for Johnny Manziel and knows how to use his size. However, following some strong personal workouts, Evans has moved from being projected in the middle part of the first round to the back end of the top 10. He could wind up going as high as No. 7, to Tampa Bay, where he can be teamed up with the receiver he’s most often compared to, Vincent Jackson.

That would remove two players from the Elite Eight, leaving six receivers that are all likely to be gone by the middle of the second round. Assuming the Eagles stand pat, a third could be off the board before their turn in the chow line.

Who will remain is uncertain.

Of the six remaining A-list receivers, three – USC’s Marqise Lee, LSU’s Odell Beckham and Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks – are created in the game-breaker image of DeSean Jackson.

Lee (6-0, 195), a 2012 Heisman Trophy finalist (he had 118 catches from Eagles’ backup Matt Barkley), is coming off a down year where he was battling injuries and was not in synch with  Barkley’s replacement. Nonetheless, he is a top-end talent, with return skills, that Kelly knows well from coaching against him in the PAC-12.

The same could be said of Cooks, who switched places with Lee as the PAC-12’s premier receiver. The smallish (5-10, 186) speedster (4.49) led the BCS with, 1,670 receiving yards and claimed the Biletnikoff Award as the top receiver in college football last fall.

Beckham, like Cooks, is smaller (5-11, 193) and also runs a 4.49. He could project as a dangerous slot receiver with an array of decisive open-field moves. He also has extensive return game experience, having taken two punts to the house last season.

The other three top receivers who will likely be available – Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin, Penn State’s Allen Robinson and Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews – are all at least 6-3. As such, they are considered in the mold of the big receivers – Antonio Bryant, Anquan Boldin, etc. – that teams covet. Another taller wideout, teamed with the nearly 6-4 Cooper and the 6-5 Ertz, could make the Eagles hard to defend in the red zone, with the 6-6 Foles looking over the defense and lofting the passes.

Best of the rest

If the Eagles elect to go defense in the first round, which is a distinct possibility, they would be doubling down on their roll of the dice of letting Jackson walk away for nothing but cap space, as it would be a big break if one of the top eight receivers would be on the board in the late second round.

The most likely to last would likely be Vanderbilt’s Matthews, who comes with some intriguing credentials. He is a cousin of Jerry Rice and, while they barely know one another, he reportedly has the same work ethic. He caught over 100 passes last season. His long-term ceiling might be the lowest, which is why he could last longer in the draft. However, his more developed route tree could see him as the most productive rookie, even more so than Watkins or Evans, out of the gate.

That group would include LSU’s Jarvis Landry, who is considered the best blocking receiver in the draft, which surely won’t be lost on Kelly, who puts a premium on that skill. Another is Mississippi’s Donte Moncrief. At 6-2 and 226 pounds, with jets timed at 4.49, he is considered to be a first-round talent who has yet to put it all together. And given Kelly’s penchant for Oregon players, Duck alum Josh Huff – another solid blocker who not only built like a running back (5-11, 211), but also runs like one after the catch – is a name to watch.

Draft wild cards are Wyoming’s Robert Herron, who is among the fastest (4.3 range) but among the smallest (5-9, 193), and South Carolina’s Bruce Ellington, an outstanding all-around athlete who played point guard for the Gamecocks during basketball season and could help immediately as a returner while learning the be a full-time receiver. Ellington, though, is also 5-9.

Names to Remember

The draft also includes the traditional boom-or-bust types, like Davante Adams, who is 6-2 and around 215 pounds and caught 233 passes from touted prospect Derek Carr for a Fresno State team that feasted on some inferior competition. Another is Colorado’s Paul Richardson, who is 6-3 but only 180 pounds and seems automatically pegged for a West Coast offense (Kansas City, Green Bay). Clemson’s Martavis Bryant is 6-4 and 200 pounds and runs a sub-4.4 40, but only started one year.

Conversely, guys were highly productive but don’t seem quite big or explosive enough to be starters. This list would include Mike Davis of Texas, Ryan Grant of Tulane, T.J. Jones of Notre Dame, Devin Street of Pitt, Cody Latimer of Indiana and Kevin Norwood of Alabama.

There are the smurf types that will get looks because of the success of Chief-turned-Titan Dexter McCluster as a slot receiver/returner. Kent State’s Dri Archer (5-7, 175) runs a 4.37 in the 40), Oklahoma’s Jalen Sanders (5-9, 164), Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon (5-8, 183) plays hard enough to earn a roster spot while Baylor’s Tevin Reese (5-10, 170) had 25 career touchdown passes, 22 of which were from more than 40 yards out.

There are also the crafty possession-type receivers that will have teams in search of the next Wes Welker. This list includes Jared Abbredris of Wisconsin, Michael Campanaro of Wake Forest and Alex Neutz of North Dakota.

Northwestern’s Kain Colter, the college quarterback who made news for organizing a push for college athletes to unionize, is just under 6-0 and 200 and hoping to “catch on” as a receiver (i.e. New England’s Julian Edelman, who played quarterback in college). Norman Rae’s attempts were somewhat derailed because an injury kept him from the combine and offseason workouts.

Late round steals could include Costal Carolina’s Matt Hazel and BYU’s Cody Hoffman, who had a 100-catch season as a junior but struggled as a senior (57 catches). Still, at 6-4 and 218 pounds – and with big hands and highlight-reel catches on his resume – he reminds scouts of Cooper.

Beyond Hazel, the small-school list includes Jeff Janis (6-2, 212) of Saginaw Valley State and Ryan Culbreath of Furman.

Because of the draft’s depth, the guys who never quite put it all together will get pushed down — or out — of the mix altogether, while probably being late-round picks in other years. That would include UCLA’s Shaquelle Evans, Brandon Coleman of Rutgers and L’Damian Washington of Missouri.

This analysis originally appeared at phillyphanatics.com

 

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