Wide receivers who couldn’t consistently win outside.
A tight end who often drew additional coverage as a result.
Limited production from the slot receiver.
If all that sounds familiar to Carolina Panthers fans, it should. But the Philadelphia Eagles faithful feel your pain.
Many of the issues that plagued the Panthers passing game last season were issues for the Eagles in 2016 – until they made a series of personnel moves to fix them.
If the Panthers make upgrading their receiving corps an offseason priority – as people both inside the organization and outside (former NFL coach Bill Cowher) believe they should – the Eagles laid out an effective blueprint for doing so.
After Philadelphia’s passing attack sputtered in 2016 in the first year for head coach Doug Pederson and quarterback Carson Wentz, the Eagles front office decided to do something about it.
On the first day of free agency last March, the Eagles signed speed receiver Torrey Smith and former South Carolina and Chicago Bears wideout Alshon Jeffery, whom safety Malcolm Jenkins describes as a “premiere receiver who demands attention on every snap.”
The makeover continued through the summer. Dorial Green-Beckham, who struggled to gain separation in his lone season in Philly, was waived in June.
The final move came during the preseason, when the Eagles traded slot receiver Jordan Matthews, who’d been dealing with a knee issue, to Buffalo for cornerback Ronald Darby.
The Matthews trade allowed Pederson to move Nelson Agholor, a first-round pick in 2015, to the slot, which is a better fit for his skill set.
The overhaul at receiver helped the Eagles improve in every major offensive statistical category and played a big role in Philadelphia making it to Super Bowl LII against New England, despite the loss of Wentz to a season-ending knee injury in Week 14.
Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, a quarterback on the Carolina Panthers’ inaugural 1995 team, said the idea was to add “weapons that can get down the field.”
Much like the Panthers have tried to establish a run-pass balance under head coach Ron Rivera, Reich said the moves were made not only to boost the passing attack, but also the ground game.
“Going into this season, we knew we wanted to be able to run the ball effectively, be a top-five rushing team in the NFL. And we accomplished that,” Reich said of the Eagles’ No. 3-ranked rushing offense in 2017.
“But we think a lot of times what comes with that is a play-action, vertical pass game oftentimes complements a good run game.”
With Smith and Jeffery stretching defenses vertically, the middle of the field opened up for Agholor and tight end Zach Ertz, whose eight touchdowns this season were twice as many as his previous season high.
The difference outside
Meanwhile, Agholor has flourished in the slot, posting career bests in catches (62), receiving yards (768) and touchdown receptions (eight).
Agholor’s speed and quickness created mismatches in the slot, including against Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson. Early in the fourth quarter of the Eagles’ 28-23 victory at Carolina in October, Agholor made an inside move, pulled in Wentz’s pass and ran away from Thompson for a 24-yard touchdown.
“Nelson is a dynamic playmaker. We’ve been able to move him around, spot him around, find good matchups and find things that he does really well,” Eagles receivers coach Mike Groh said Monday at the Super Bowl Opening Night. “He’s had a ton of production for us, primarily out of the slot – about as good as anybody in the league.”
But it was the arrival of Jeffery on a one-year deal (the Eagles have since locked him up with a long-term contract) that gave Wentz a Pro Bowl-caliber target – the type of true No. 1 receiver that Cowher and others believe the Panthers need.
Groh was with Jeffery in Chicago. And though there was a bit of a depressed market for Jeffery following injuries and a four-game suspension for PEDs in 2016, Groh knew the 6-4, 230-pound receiver could help the Eagles.
“He’s got excellent size and he’s got length, strong hands and body control to be able to make the contested plays,” Groh said. “He presents that issue – how you gonna match up with that? And he does have sneaky speed. You don’t think of him as a speed guy, but he can eat up some grass quickly.”
The same goes for Smith, a respected deep threat since breaking in as a fourth-round pick with the Baltimore Ravens in 2011.
“It’s been great for our quarterbacks to have more weapons. That was a place we struggled at last year,” Jenkins said. “Being able to have guy that consistently win outside, it’s been one of the strong points of the offense this year.”
It all added up to a diverse, dependable group for the Eagles, who had three players with more than 700 receiving yards (Ertz, Jeffery, Agholor) and led the league with 38 receiving touchdowns.
“We’re like a basketball team that doesn’t have a 30-point scorer. We’ve got five guys that can beat you and five guys that can win the game. And they can all score,” Reich said. “That’s what we’ve done all year. That’s been our formula and we need to ride that all the way to the end.”