Could Jordan Matthews Beat out Jeremy Maclin for Eagles' Starting WR Spot?

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Could Jordan Matthews Beat out Jeremy Maclin for Eagles' Starting WR Spot?
USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks ago, we asked whether heavily hyped Philadelphia Eagles rookie wide receiver Jordan Matthews had a shot at the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year award. But in order for that to happen, the second-round pick out of Vanderbilt will have to earn a significant number of opportunities. 

Even with DeSean Jackson gone, that's no easy task in an offense that is loaded with weapons. Jeremy Maclin is back after missing the 2013 campaign due to a torn ACL, and fellow youngsters Zach Ertz and Josh Huff will also be fighting for playing time within an offense that also added Darren Sproles this offseason. 

Only five backs and/or receivers can be on the field at once, and your average NFL team ran 1,040 plays last year. That leaves just 5,200 appearances in plays to go around. 

Backs took up 1,136 of those plays last season, but the presence of Sproles could boost that number above 1,300. At tight end, Ertz, Brent Celek and James Casey split 1,480 snaps in 2013. That number should also grow as Ertz gains more looks. Your starting wide receivers, if healthy, inevitably play 1,000 snaps each. 

In this example, the No. 3 receiver would be limited to approximately 300 snaps. We'll be generous to Matthews...

Projected 2014 snaps for Eagles' skill position players
Player Snap count
Riley Cooper 1000
Jeremy Maclin 1000
LeSean McCoy 800
Zach Ertz 800
Brent Celek 700
Jordan Matthews 500
Darren Sproles 400

Brad Gagnon/Bleacher Report

Yes, Jason Avant was on the field for 807 snaps last year, but that was before Ertz had emerged and Sproles had arrived. And of 94 qualifying wide receivers, Avant was one of only 10 who averaged fewer than one receiving yard per pass route run, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). 

And that's why Matthews could have a very tough time making an impact if he doesn't earn a starting role as a rookie. 

Head coach Chip Kelly stated from the get-go that Matthews would likely spend most of his time in the slot this season, but that doesn't mean he can't be a starter. As we've witnessed from Miles Austin and Victor Cruz in this very division, slot-focused receivers can be every-down players nowadays.

And Kelly always talks about catering to his personnel, so if Matthews shines in that spot, Kelly—who used a slot receiver 56 percent of the time in 2013might just have to tweak his offense so that the rookie can maximize his exposure at that position. 

And it's completely possible Matthews continues to shine. He's been that good thus far. Earlier this month, Philly.com's Jimmy Kempski raved about the rook:

And NJ.com's Eliot Shorr-Parks compared him to Terrell Owens:

Like Owens, Matthew stands 6-foot-3. Also like Owens, Matthews is known for being a hard worker and a workout nut. Throw in the fact that they both wear No. 81, and it is hard not to think it is Owens out there catching passes during Eagles practices.

[...]

Matthews has been very impressive during Eagles' offseason workouts so far, despite the fact he is still running with the second team on offense. The rookie receiver had a number of nice catches on Monday afternoon, including one over two defenders in the middle of the field.

So if that's what transpires, who's the odd man out? Maybe it's actually Maclin, who is coming off his the second major knee procedure of his life and isn't as physically imposing as Cooper or Matthews (both 6'3" and 210-225 pounds). 

Sure, Kelly loves speed, but we still don't know if Maclin has lost anything coming off that injury. But even if that isn't the case, it's important to remember that Matthews is a Kelly guy and Maclin was an Andy Reid guy. And in Kelly's world, size is also key. 

"We want taller, longer people because bigger people beat up little people," said Kelly last March, according to Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Daily News. He's reiterated that remark since. 

The latest arms race-type fad in this league has teams clamoring for big, physical defensive backs in order to emulate the world champion Seattle Seahawks. But the natural answer to that will be even bigger and stronger receivers. 

Matthews has three inches and about 13 pounds on Maclin, and he's one hell of a physical presence. 

DraftBreakdown.com
DraftBreakdown.com

"His size has shown up in our training," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said last week, per Paul Domowitch of the Philadelphia Daily News. "He's made some plays. He's made some contested catches. He's done a good job of catching the ball and running with it. And even though we haven't been tackling, my sense is once he catches it and gets running, he'll be a difficult guy to tackle."

That might be why Matthews is already earning reps with the first team, according to NJ.com's Matt Lombardo:

After setting new SEC records with 242 catches and 3,759 yards in four years at Vanderbilt, he comes polished. So while conventional wisdom indicates Matthews will remain the No. 3 guy this year, with the experienced Maclin returning to his regular spot from what is now an expired era, consider that this franchise rarely adheres to convention. 

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