The growing trend of the NFL is three-receiver sets on the majority of plays. Head coaches favorite the classic slot receiver a la Wes Welker or Danny Amendola, normally an undersized, shifty receiver with quickness and speed who can get open and make plays.
Chip Kelly will definitely utilize his slot receiver. He comes to the NFL as king of the hurry-up offense, one that is predicated upon quick decision-making and speedy, versatile weapons capable of lining up everywhere on the field.
Kelly has already said the quarterback competition is wide-open and it’s likely his receiver battles are the same.
It would be shocking not to see DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin as the top two receivers. It seems likely that Jason Avant, Damaris Johnson, and even Arrelious Benn will be competing for the slot role. Here are reasons to believe each could win the job.
The Case for Jason Avant
Avant is the longest-tenured skill-position player on the Eagles’ offense. He’s a former fourth-round draft pick who has held down the slot receiver spot for five straight seasons now.
Avant is as reliable and consistent as they come. He’s not flashy, but he’s averaged 49 catches and 622 yards every season since ’09. His receptions have increased from 41 to 51 to 52 to 53, and he’s best as a third-down possession receiver.
Avant doesn’t possess the typical speed Kelly seeks for his players, but he is as sure-handed as they get. Last year, he was targeted 71 times, and he caught 53 passes for a stunning 74.6 completion percentage. He didn’t drop any of those passes, per Pro Football Focus. That’s 53 catches without a drop. The next-best in the league was 18.
Avant’s size (6’0”, 210 pounds) also makes him a good complement to the undersized Jackson and Maclin, two receivers that don’t go across the middle nearly as well. He’s a terrific blocker, which definitely gives him the edge over the undersized and inexperienced Johnson. Avant has always rated as a plus blocker both in the passing and running game.
The Case for Damaris Johnson
It could be said that Kelly’s offense was made for Johnson, who was a dynamic playmaker at the University of Tulsa. He set the all-time collegiate record for career kick return yards, topping 2,000 all-purpose yards in three different seasons.
Johnson saw limited action at the professional level in 2012, lining up at wide receiver, punt returner and running back for the Eagles. He totaled 19 receptions for 256 yards, returned 26 punts for 291 yards and a 98-yard touchdown and ran three times for 12 yards. His 5.5 yards after catch (YAC) average was tied for 40th in the league out of 206 receivers.
Johnson is essentially a clone of Jackson, although he’s probably not as game-changing. Still, Johnson said he thinks he’s a great fit for Kelly’s offense and teammate Maclin agrees. Maclin thinks Johnson is the one player that will benefit the most from Kelly.
Johnson comes cheap, so the Eagles would just have to pay him his base salary of $480,000 for the 2013 campaign. That’s substantially less than what Avant would require—a $2.71 million cap hit. Releasing Avant now would cost the Eagles about half of that as a cap penalty. Regardless, they could use Johnson at a much cheaper price.
The Case for Arrelious Benn
Benn is significantly bigger than either Avant or Johnson, clocking in at about 6’2” and 220 pounds. He played sparingly last year with the Bucs, totaling just four receptions. Once drafted as high as 39th overall, Benn fell out of favor in Tampa Bay, but may be looking to revive himself in Philadelphia.
Benn did run a 4.42 40-yard dash coming out of college. That combination of speed and size may make him the ideal fit to be the team’s slot receiver. He’s also a terrific blocker, which is a skill Kelly cherishes in his players. Benn’s last full season, 2011, saw him rank ninth-best among 200 wide receivers in blocking efficiency, per Pro Football Focus.
At just a $630,000 salary in 2013, paying Benn won’t be an issue either.
Jackson and Maclin are locks to make the team, but after that, there are no guarantees.
Johnson seems to be the safest bet of the aforementioned three, given his superior versatility and cheap contract. Benn should make the team too, seeing as he was a high draft pick just three years ago, the Eagles traded to get him and he’s also cheap.
Avant may be the odd man out. His $2.71 million salary is a lot to pay for a receiver that doesn’t particularly fit Kelly’s dream offense. Avant knows the Eagles well, but with Kelly taking over as head coach, he doesn't have much of an edge.
Avant's blocking will help his case, but Kelly loves utilizing multiple tight ends. More than the other two, Avant plays like a tight end. The Eagles will use Zach Ertz whenever they can in sets with Brent Celek, and James Casey is a fullback/tight end mold. That doesn't bode well for Avant.
Unless he agrees to restructure his deal, Avant will probably be playing for another team in '13.