The Philadelphia Eagles dug their own hole at wide receiver this offseason with the release of DeSean Jackson. Now, the front office must go about trying to fill it through the NFL draft, trading up in Round 2 for Jordan Matthews out of Vanderbilt.
Replacing a player of Jackson’s caliber is no small task. The three-time Pro Bowler was coming off of a career year in head coach Chip Kelly’s offense, hauling in 82 receptions for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns in 2013.
Thankfully, Matthews doesn’t have to—at least right away. Jeremy Maclin, who missed all of last season due to a torn ACL, should supplant most of Jackson’s production as the No. 1 receiver. Riley Cooper was retained and remains an adequate No. 2.
The addition of running back Darren Sproles—acquired in a trade with the New Orleans Saints—along with the emergence of second-year tight end Zach Ertz helps to alleviate some of the pressure as well. Both players can move around the offense, often lining up as wideouts.
That being said, Philadelphia was lacking a true No. 3 wide receiver, especially considering the team cut long-time slot specialist Jason Avant as well. The best option remaining behind Maclin and Cooper was Arrelious Benn, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneer who’s been limited to eight games over the past two seasons due to injuries.
Matthews gives the Eagles offense another legitimate target when they want to go three wide. He’s also likely the next in line in the event Maclin or Cooper are out.
Matthews’ size, strength and speed translate perfectly for the outside. That being said, Kelly told reporters the second-round pick will begin his pro career in the slot—although the innovative head coach likes to shuffle the deck.
Yet, with Sproles in the fold and Ertz perhaps on the verge of blossoming into a star, the coaching staff can afford to work Matthews in slowly. Philadelphia went three wide roughly 75 percent of the time last season. That figure won’t be nearly as high in ’14.
However, as he becomes more comfortable at the next level, Matthews will prove difficult to keep off the field. He stands 6’3”, 212 pounds—a build that creates matchup problems in itself—then tack on impressive 4.46 speed.
Coming from the SEC, he might be NFL-ready right now. Matthews led the conference in receptions (112) and receiving yards (1,477) as a senior while going up against some of the top competition college football has to offer.
Ideally, Matthews will unseat Cooper for the No. 2 wide receiver role by next season. Cooper just signed a five-year, $25 million contract in the offseason, but he’s a far more limited athlete than Matthews and is probably little more than a placeholder.
Maclin’s situation will be one to monitor, though. He opted for a one-year deal this offseason to test free agency again next year, when he’s healthy. And while ACL surgeries might seem fairly routine in the NFL these days, there’s no telling how Maclin's recovery went until he’s in pads and a helmet.
In other words, Matthews could wind up the Eagles top receiver as early as 2015.
That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a second-round pick, but remember, this was an insanely deep class of wide receivers. In any other year, Matthews almost certainly would have gone in Round 1.
Given his athletic ability and track record against top competition, Matthews’s ceiling is definitely that of a No. 1 receiver.