Training Camp Battles To Watch: WR

With the pre-season on the horizon and training camp starting this week, one word is on everyone’s mind at the NovaCare Complex — Competition. 

Nick Sirianni has made competition his and his staff’s mantra.

And since the time of his hiring, he’s made it clear that there will be competition for all positions on the team and that complacency won’t survive on the roster. The highest picks of this year’s draft class will have to battle for playing time on this rejuvenated roster, even Devonta Smith. 

The coaching staff is made up of several young and exciting minds that have historically found ways to get use out of all types of receivers. Coaches such as Shane Steichen, Aaron Moorehead, and Kevin Patullo all have a history of developing talent at the wide receiver position.

It will be exciting to see how they solve the puzzle of the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver room.

Wide receiver has been a weak spot on the Eagles roster for several years. However, the current receiver room has more than enough ‘juice’ (in the words of Aaron Moorehead), especially from the team’s most recent first round picks.

As of now, the Eagles receiving core is made up of DeVonta Smith, Jalen Reagor, Greg Ward, Travis Fulgham, Quez Watkins, John Hightower, JJ Arcega-Whitetside (JJAW), and Jhamon Ausbon. Adrian Killins is also listed despite taking snaps at running back last season.

WR1 and WR2

Smith and Reagor, in my view, have the ability to be as prolific and dynamic a receiving duo as Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson were. This is not to say that the two will immediately play at the level of a Pro-Bowler and future Hall of Famer, but rather that Smith and Reagor absolutely have the potential to put defenses on their heels for the Philadelphia Eagles. 

Despite Reagor’s up and down season last year, there were many variables that I believe did not foster the ideal situation to thrive in including injury, inadequate quarterback play for most of the season, and suspect play-calling.

The combination of DeVonta Smith’s silky-smooth route running, Jalen Reagor’s speed and strength, and both of their home-run ability should keep defenses off-kilter all year and allow for more rushing lanes for Jalen Hurts and the nice stable of running backs the Eagles have assembled.

It should also open up space for Dallas Goedert to make the plays he is capable of. Smith and Reagor will undoubtedly benefit from having each other on opposite sides of the offensive formation and will only bolster one another’s ability to execute and grow.

Mr. 4 Weeks

Not to be forgotten is the star of weeks 4-8 last year. Travis Fulgham burst onto the scene as a breath of fresh air in a stale receiving corps. In his first game with the Eagles, Fulgham caught a 42-yard touchdown pass to put them ahead of the 49ers and ultimately win the game. Fulgham has the size and movement skills to be your prototypical X-receiver — a larger receiver with the ability to beat press and make contested catches.

But while he was prolific for four weeks, he also concerningly disappeared for the back half of the season. Whether this was the doing of the front office or more to do with his lack of maturity remains to be seen, but his talent and ability to make big plays in big moments is obvious and is a fantastic starting point.

Old Reliable

Greg Ward has become Mr. Reliable for the Eagles. Over the past two years, after making the switch from an impressive dual-threat QB to a UDFA WR signing, he’s become a consistent and dependable wide receiver for the Eagles.

Although he lacks the physical intangibles of some of the other receivers on the roster, his combination of quick foot speed in his releases and his sharp football mind, which seems to channel a quarterback’s perspective, has made him every Eagles quarterback of the last two years favorite and most dependable target. All great receiving rooms have a player who has the ability to go out and get 5-7 yards no matter what, and for the Eagles, Greg Ward is that guy.

The Battle Begins

On the fringe are Watkins, Hightower, and JJAW. Each player brings different skills that have allowed them to make it this far (JJAW’s blocking of course), however, they also have obvious flaws in their game and it remains to be seen whether or not they’ll be able to overcome them with an additional summers worth of work, a new coaching staff with fresh perspectives, and a field where competitiveness is the main currency.

Watkins has game breaking speed that all coaches drool over. For him to take the next step, he’s going to have to work on his feet during releases and at the top of routes and consistently catch the ball with his hands. From the looks of it, he’s put in hours training this offseason on these weak spots and seems ready to come back better than ever. 

Hightower runs incredible routes and finds himself wide open more often than not. For him, the issue is catching and tracking the ball. These words are enough to make any Eagles fan cry in anguish with flashbacks of Nelson Agholor’s various drops (How did he not catch the pass against Atlanta. And against New England. And against Dallas). If Hightower can overcome these drops and learn to consistently track and catch the ball, he will absolutely be a problem for defenses. 

JJAW has been at a disadvantage essentially since the day he was drafted. Already picked higher than most expected him to go, he was billed as an Alshon Jeffery replacement and picked for his ability to win jump-balls and play on the outside. Unfortunately, none of this has happened to date and the receiver taken seven picks after him has become a prolific and outspoken (especially about being passed on by the Eagles) receiver.

Although he was drafted to play on the outside, the best position for JJAW may be in the slot, where his lack of quickness on releases is cushioned with more space in between him and his defender. Coach Sirianni has historically found ways to utilize even the most lost-cause receivers and I suspect JJAW will be no different, given he makes the roster. I believe JJAW will be in a sort of Zach Pascal role in that he won’t be a very productive receiver when it comes to numbers, but he’ll capitalize on his strengths of blocking defensive backs to open up the running game for the offense.

The Rest

Rounding out the rest of the receiving corps going into camp is Jhamon Ausbon and Adrian Killins. Ausbon was a UDFA rookie out of Texas A&M and signed to the team this year. He has been billed as a high-character locker room figure — the type that is integral to rebuilding a young team. In terms of on-the-field production, he’s a solid possession receiver who thrives in contested catch situations, but struggled, even at the collegiate level, to find consistent separation from corners. 

Killins, a UDFA from the 2020 class out of UCF is a classic “gadget” player. Running a 4.39 40 yard dash, but being slight of size at 5’8, has been a gift and a curse for Killins. Signed for his high upside, Killins, a young player, still has yet to execute upon his potential. Should he put it all together, he is a great weapon for an offensive aficionado like Nick Sirianni to get his hands on.

Predictions

As for final predictions for the roster, I believe the Eagles will keep six receivers on the roster — one less than they did last year.

  • DeVonta Smith
  • Jalen Reagor
  • Travis Fulgham
  • Greg Ward
  • Quez Watkins
  • JJAW 

Ultimately, I expect John Hightowers inability to track the deep ball and catch it consistently to be his downfall and the reason he doesn’t make the 53.

While Hightower’s upside may gain him favor with some, I believe that JJAW’s strengths as a blocker will be accentuated by Coach Sirriani’s offense and game planning, which will ultimately give him an edge over Hightower. Plus, the additional cushion from the slot, and the specified route trees and running of Coach Sirriani’s offense will allow him to flourish further as a pass catcher.

Additionally, I believe Watkins’ speed is simply too enticing to give up on and that the work he put in throughout the offseason will bear fruit for him in the form of increased playing time and positive results. 

Although these are my predictions for the 53 man roster, I still believe Hightower and Ausbon will make the team as practice squad members, where they will have the ability to continue to hone their skills and hopefully push for more playing time in 2023 and beyond.

Let the competition to 53 begin.

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