Predicting the Philadelphia Eagles Top Red-Zone Receiving Threats
The red-zone offense was a major problem for the Eagles last season. With so much parity in the NFL, every possession in the red zone can be the difference between winning and losing. Bottom line, good teams score touchdowns inside the 20 and bad teams turn the ball over and settle for field goals.
Last season, the Eagles weren't a good red-zone team. Michael Vick did throw 13 touchdowns inside the 20, but also had four interceptions and a quarterback rating of just 71.9. The Eagles also had to settle for 21 of their total 27 attempted field goal inside the 40-yard line. That number is far too high for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
The key to a successful red-zone offense comes from the passing game. Defenses today are far too big and far too athletic to just rely on the ground game in a short field. It takes good chemistry between a quarterback and his receivers. The field is much shorter inside the 20. You can't really spread the defense out with less space to work with.
We all know that Vick's decision-making has to get back to the level it was in 2010 when he had 22 total touchdowns and just one interception inside the 20. But what about his receivers? Here is a breakdown on the top five most important red-zone targets for Michael Vick in 2012.
5. DeSean Jackson
DeSean Jackson is the toughest receiver in football to cover one-on-one. Calvin Johnson may have about six inches and 50 pounds on Jackson, but nobody has as much speed and agility that Jackson has. Speed is a great thing to have, but its value lessens in a shorter field.
Jackson had 58 receptions in 2011, but just two of them were inside the 20. He doesn't have the size to be a great red-zone target, but his speed can still be an asset in a shorter field.
His speed makes him either a great decoy in the red zone or the best option. If the defense commits two defenders to Jackson, someone else should be able to get open. If they cove him with one defender, he just has to bit the defender to a spot. That is where the chemistry between Vick and Jackson comes into play. Vick has to recognize the single coverage and hit his spot.
Hopefully, the Eagles can utilize Jackson's speed in the red zone for more than just two completions in 2012. If his chemistry improves with Vick in the red zone, then they will.
4. Jason Avant
Jason Avant has become on of the top slot receivers in football. He doesn't have great size and speed, but he makes up for it with excellent route running abilities and good hands. Avant had 52 catches last season, but just five of them came inside the 20.
The Eagles have to do a better job of making Avant a bigger part of the red-zone offense. In a shorter field, route running and hands are the two most important skills to have. Slot receivers get favorable matchups the majority of the time in the red zone.
Typically, they get matched up with outside linebackers in the red zone. Defenses have to be concerned with the running game too much to put six defensive backs on the field. This is where the slot receiver has to take advantage of a mismatch with an outside linebacker. The Eagles have to take advantage of this more in 2012, and Avant has to make the most of his red zone opportunities. He isn't going to score very many touchdowns outside of the red zone.
3. Riley Cooper
Riley Cooper is a red zone project three years in the making. He was drafted in 2010 to be a red-zone target. He wasn't drafted because of his speed. No, he was drafted because he is a physical receiver at 6'3, 220. In his first two seasons, he has yet to full utilize his size in the NFL.
Last season, Cooper had just one red-zone reception. It was a touchdown, but one reception inside the 20 for a whole season isn't going to get it done. Cooper is vital to the Eagles' success in the red zone. He is the only receiver capable of running the fade routes consistently. He is the closest thing they have to a "jump-ball" receiver. The better he becomes, the better the red-zone offense can become.
The problem with Cooper is that he doesn't play the ball well in the air and he doesn't come back to the ball to make the catch. If he can improve in those areas, he should become a much better target in 2012.
2. Brent Celek
Tight ends always should be your best or second-best red-zone target. Brent Celek is just that for the Eagles. He is a good enough blocker not to give the impression to the defense that it could be staying in for run blocking while he is also a good enough receiver to beat any defender in a one-on-one matchup.
Celek had a good year in the red zone last season. He had 10 catches and four touchdowns.That's pretty impressive for a tight end that was kept in a lot for pass protection early in the season and battled through a sports hernia injury and a torn labrum late in the season. Imagine what he can do with a more cohesive offensive line and a healthier body in 2012.
Celek isn't the explosive athlete that some of the other tight ends are in this league, but he might be one of the most polished. He is best utilized over the middle of the field, but can line up on the outside as either a decoy or just has a mismatch for corners on the outside.
We should expect even better red-zone numbers for Celek in 2012. He is healthy and really started to acquire a solid connection with Vick in the final two months of the season, where he hauled in 40 passes from the month of November on. We should expect to see those type of numbers during the duration of the 2012 season from the Eagles' second-best red-zone target.
1. Jeremy Maclin
If you would have told me that Jeremy Maclin would be an NFL team's best red-zone receiver when he came out of college, I would have called you crazy. Maclin was an elite punt returner and a dangerous deep threat coming out of Missouri. His speed was what set him apart coming into the NFL.
Now, Maclin is in a offense with arguably the faster receiver in football, DeSean Jackson. His speed isn't going to separate him on this roster. What has made him such a valuable weapon is his overall game. He is a deep threat, a great screener and a possession receiver all rolled into one. If he was 6'5", he might be the best receiver in football right now.
To fully appreciate Maclin's ability in the red zone, you have to look past the 2011 season. Very few players had a good season on the Eagles roster. There was dysfunction, arrogance and just a lack of key fundamentals. Not to mention Maclin's health scare in the offseason that was once thought to be potentially cancer and which also caused him to drop down to about 180 pounds at one point. That fact that he was active in Week 1 last season was a major accomplishment in itself.
Maclin had a fine season in the red zone despite everything. He had eight receptions and four touchdowns. Not bad in an offense that has plenty of weapons, including touchdown machine LeSean McCoy, at running back.
Maclin was far more impressive in 2010. In 2010, he had 11 receptions for over 100 yards inside the 20-yard line, including seven touchdowns. Despite Michael Vick coming into that season as Kevin Kolb's backup, it seemed that he and Maclin were perfectly in sync.
We should see his 2010 red-zone numbers be surpassed in 2012 as he enters the season strong than he has ever been and healthier than he has even been. Add that with another year of experience under his belt, and Maclin should be in line for a career season.