Should Philadelphia Eagles Target Wide Receiver Early in 2014 NFL Draft?

Cody Swartz@cbswartz5Senior Writer IMarch 1, 2014

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson (10) celebrates his touchdown with teammates Jeremy Maclin (18) and Jason Avant (81) in the first half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2009, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Associated Press

The Philadelphia Eagles haven't wasted any time in February locking up the core of their talented roster.

Offensive linemen Jason Peters and Jason Kelce were both given long-term contract extensions to remain in Philly. Wide receiver Riley Cooper was re-signed to a team-friendly, five-year deal at $25 million total, a contract that looks much better considering the Eagles can void it after two seasons at little cap penalty. And Jeremy Maclin agreed to a one-year, prove-it deal worth $6 million.

That means the Eagles will return virtually the exact same offense in 2014 as the one that set a franchise record for points scored in '13. Barring a surprise release of a veteran player, Chip Kelly gets his offense back with a full year of experience under their belts.

Perhaps general manager Howie Roseman's finest move was retaining both Cooper and Maclin. The former enjoyed a breakout season under Foles in 2013, catching eight touchdowns while emerging as a bona fide downfield deep threat. Foles posted a ridiculous 141.7 passer rating when throwing to Cooper, the single-best mark between any QB and wide receiver.

The latter has never played a down of football under Kelly, as Maclin suffered a torn ACL in preseason. That directly led to Cooper's emergence opposite DeSean Jackson.

Considering Kelly is an offensive-minded coach, he has to be thrilled with Roseman's fiscal success, allowing the Eagles to bring back both Cooper and Maclin. And the team is still in excellent salary-cap position, with room to target a big-name safety or pass-rushing linebacker.

So what will the Eagles' receiving corps look like in '14? 

Jackson is locked in as the No. 1 threat, after he posted career bests in receptions, yards, touchdowns and earned his third Pro Bowl selection. He even improved his physicality, rating as an above-average blocker, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). His $12.75 million cap hit is a lot of money, but if he plays like he did last year, he's worth every penny.

The fact that Maclin is making more money than Cooper in '13 suggests the team favors him as the No. 2 receiver opposite Jackson. That bodes well for Maclin—Cooper was the unquestioned No. 2 receiver a year ago, and he played nearly every snap. In fact, his 1,002 snaps played made him one of just 13 receivers in the league to see that much action on the field.

Much of that was probably because the team wasn't getting much from aging slot receiver Jason Avant. But regardless, Maclin should easily be able to top Cooper's numbers.

Michael Perez/Associated Press

Maclin has disappointed since being a first-round pick, but he has still averaged 64 catches, 861 yards and seven scores per season. Kelly's offense brought out the best in both Jackson and Cooper, and logic suggests it should do the same for the athletic Maclin.

Cooper may see a hit in his numbers, but his '13 totals were already deflated due to playing with Michael Vick for six games. For whatever reason, Cooper couldn't get on the same page as Vick, rendering him nearly ineffective in games started by Vick. Cooper's rapport with Foles will buy him snaps, and he's the team's biggest receiver and, thus, the best threat in the red zone.

Avant is set to earn nearly $4 million in '14, which would be his ninth season with the club. He's been a role model on and off the field, but it is highly unlikely he returns next season. His speed has declined to the point that he's almost invisible in terms of gaining yards after the catch, and he gains little separation. Kelly wants versatile players, not 30-year-old aging veterans who can be covered one-on-one by a linebacker.

Compiling the bottom of the depth chart are players like Damaris Johnson, Arrelious Benn, Brad Smith and Jeff Maehl.

Johnson barely saw the field in '13 and won't likely be back. Benn missed the whole season due to injury and hasn't fulfilled his stock as a former second-round draft pick. Smith seemed to be a favorite of Kelly's, due to his versatility and ability to throw the football. But he's not a threat to take time from the other receivers. And Maehl probably wouldn't have made the roster had he not attended the University of Oregon, where Kelly coached.

Recent mock drafts have suggested the Eagles will draft a wide receiver as early as the first round.

Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans won't likely fall until the 22nd pick. USC's Marqise Lee could get picked in the top 20 selections as well. The Eagles have been heavily linked to Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin, a 6'5" receiver with good speed for his size. Benjamin would have taken over for Cooper had he left in free agency.

But since Philly has re-signed each of its top receivers, wide receiver is not nearly as much of a pressing need. The Eagles have a talented trio in Jackson, Maclin and Cooper. Kelly likes using two tight ends, and he has Brent Celek and Zach Ertz. The Eagles also have LeSean McCoy out of the backfield, a multitalented weapon who has averaged 54 catches per season since entering the league in '09.

Adding another receiver wouldn't be the worst move in the world.

Maclin probably won't be back in 2015, especially if he puts up a career year next season. That would enable him to be a coveted player in free agency, and some team will probably offer him a multiyear deal that the Eagles can't match. And if Cooper proves himself unable to duplicate his success from a year ago, Philly may need a receiver.

For now, though, the defense remains just too much of a priority. The unit overachieved all season under coordinator Billy Davis, at one point going nine consecutive games without allowing more than 21 points. A handful of promising players lead the defense, namely Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks and Brandon Boykin.

Still, the safety position is a glaring weakness, well worthy of the team's first-round selection. If the Eagles don’t sign a star like Jairus Byrd or T.J. Ward, there are no excuses not to take a safety in the first two rounds.

The top safeties in the draft are Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Louisville’s Calvin Pryor; after that, there’s a definite drop-off to the next-best on the list. That means Philly really should spend its first-rounder on a safety, if the position isn’t addressed via free agency.

Spending a second- or third-round pick on a receiver could be a solid move, though. It’s a deep receiver class. If the Eagles could get a player like Brandin Cooks in the second round or Jordan Matthews/Martavis Bryant in the third round, that’s a smart investment. Cooks is a speedy playmaker, while the other two are bigger receivers who can handle physical defensive backs.

Kelly is a smart coach. He has to know Jackson won’t be around forever. Maclin may be gone soon. And Cooper could have peaked already. The Eagles could conceivably need another receiver as soon as ’15.

Kelly proved he knows what he’s doing a year ago. He hit big with Lane Johnson and Ertz in his first two rounds, and he turned Foles into a franchise quarterback right away. The defense needs some work for sure, but if Kelly determines Philly needs a receiver in the first several rounds, he’s earned the right to make that pick.


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