It was a cloudy day in Seattle when the Philadelphia Eagles visited Century Link Field in November of 2016. The Eagles had their offensive struggles early in the game and trailed by 9 in the later stages of the first half. Quarterback Carson Wentz led his offense back onto the field with just under four minutes to play with a chance to slice into the deficit before the half.
Wentz wanted to take a shot downfield on the first play of the drive and spotted wide receiver Nelson Agholor open over the middle on a hitch route. Agholor gained separation from his corner Richard Sherman with a crisp route and was in perfect position to make a huge catch and run that would get the Eagles into field goal range in just one play. Wentz rifled the ball over the middle right into the hands of his receiver. The ball bounced right off of both of Agholor’s hands and harmlessly fell to the ground behind him.
Agholor slammed both of his heads on his head in anguish and looked down towards his own feet for a moment. Sherman picked up the ball behind him and approached him after his drop, while safety Kam Chancellor got in his face and mockingly gave him a round of applause as he jogged back to the huddle.
A familiar scene replayed itself for Eagles fans. Their first round selection from only two years before had still not amounted to much. His agility and route running left him wide open on a lot of plays, but it did not matter if he could not bring down simple catches.
The young receiver’s confidence had eroded and he was the target of much of the fans frustration as the season went on. Agholor would end the game in Seattle with 0 receptions on 3 targets as the Eagles lost an ugly game on the west coast. They fell to 5-5 on the season and while still in the thick of the NFC playoff race their season felt all but over. After a surprise 3-0 start they had lost three of their last four. This game would be the first of what would eventually become a five game losing streak.
Philadelphia had one of the worst receiving corps in the league and Agholor made an easy scapegoat for the Eagles struggles. He was yet to have sort of success at the pro level and was in the midst of what was yet again an extremely disappointing season. Drops still plagued his game and it looked like he would never reach his true potential. Fans wanted to run him out of town. Despite everything though, the Eagles coaching staff still showed confidence in Agholor hoping that one day their investment in him would finally be returned.
When the Eagles drafted Agholor in the first round of the 2015 draft they were in the middle of what was a total overhaul of their offense. Chip Kelly had taken full reigns of the franchise a few years earlier and shocked the NFL by trading away LeSean McCoy and allowing Jeremy Maclin to walk in free agency.
The moves were unsettling and disrupted the path of what was one of the rising teams in the league. Nick Foles had grown into the starting quarterback role after replacing Mike Vick and had potential to lead the franchise. He then took an enormous step back in 2014 and could barely stay on the field. They had consecutive 10 win seasons, and even won their division in 2013 before narrowly missing the postseason in 2014.
Philadelphia tried to rebuild fast. They dealt Foles to St. Louis for former top overall pick Sam Bradford. Agholor joined young, budding receiver, Jordan Matthews alongside Riley Cooper. They also added veteran Miles Austin to hopefully provide Bradford a steady, reliable, target. DeMarco Murray, the 2014 NFL rushing champion, was signed from the Cowboys to replace McCoy.
Despite having lost some of their most talented skill position players, the Eagles had built what was, on paper, a great offense.
Unfortunately, their strength on paper did not translate on to the field.
Matthews was impressive, and tight end Zach Ertz was, as always, one of the team’s top receivers. The DeMarco Murray experiment was a remarkable failure andd he did not even break 400 yards on the season. Cooper’s production had entirely fallen off and Austin had lost a step after years in the NFL. Bradford was inconsistent, and the Eagles struggled to a 7-9 record as they watched the Washington Redskins come from beneath them to win the worst division in the NFL.
And then there was Agholor. The 20th overall pick started as a wide receiver #2 in his rookie season. His production was underwhelming, though. He only caught 23 of his 44 targets and finished short of 300 yards. He only found the end zone once. Drops haunted him and many were calling for his head already only a year into his short career.
Judging a player by their rookie year is unfair, but Agholor was shockingly bad. The USC product was one of the best receivers in the history of the storied college program. He became only the sixth Trojan in school history to eclipse 1,300 receiving yards in a single season and ranked 12th all-time in career receiving yards.
The former Trojan was an exciting prospect at Southern Cal. He is an athletic freak with a high football IQ. The receiver is shifty and agile, and he is great at beating defenders on his first step. Agholor is a precise route runner but lacks speed. His skill set pigeonholes him as a slot receiver. Matthews, who the Eagles drafted a year before Agholor in the second round, already occupied the slot for Philadelphia.
Matthews had already solidified his role in the offense and was not going to move aside for Agholor. He was the team’s most productive receiver in his first two seasons. Just like Agholor, he had struggles dropping passes, but he was still the team’s number one guy.
2016 was a rebuilding year for the Eagles. Kelly was fired and replaced by Doug Pederson. They made a huge trade up to second overall in the draft to select Carson Wentz out of North Dakota and dealt Bradford over to Minnesota. Linebacker Kiko Alonso and corner Byron Maxwell were sent to Miami as well. The Eagles third trade of that Summer may have put Agholor’s job in danger. Titans receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, who was drafted in the second round in 2015, was acquired by Philadelphia. Beckham had a standout rookie year but lack of effort had him in danger of being released during the Titans training camp. The Eagles were betting on a change of scenery inspiring him to build on his rookie year.
Unlike Agholor, Beckham is naturally a split receiver. Matthews was not going anywhere soon and Beckham fills the same role out wide that Agholor does. With a new man under center, Philadelphia was also looking at a few new options for Wentz to throw to. Despite only being in his second season Agholor was already a man on the hot seat.
The Eagles got off to a hot 3-0 start and Carson Wentz looked like a revelation in Philadelphia. They ended up faltering down the stretch, though, and Wentz only got worse and worse as the season went on. They finished 2017 at 7-9 yet again and fans were ready to run half of the roster out of town. Ertz was as good as ever still and Matthews, while still plagued by drops, was still far and away the most productive receiver on the roster.
Agholor was benched by the Eagles for their game against the Green Bay Packers and the writing was seemingly on the wall for him.
“Seeing the game…seeing it differently” is the reason head coach Doug Pederson gave reporters for the receivers benching. Pederson was always a vocal supporter of the receiver, but benching Agholor made many believe that the second-year player had already lost the faith of his most important believer.
Agholor disappointed again. He finished below 400 yards despite starting for the majority of the season. He only scored two touchdowns and only caught 36 of his 69 targets. Drops still haunted him and after only two years he was already being labeled a bust by many. One respite for him was that Green-Beckham was also absolutely awful.
“I just have to get out of my own head. I’m pressing so much and worried about so many things,” Agholor told reporters after the game in Seattle. “I’m thinking too much and so worried and it’s such a selfish thing that I need to stop. I need to give my energy to my teammates and this organization and not myself and feeling so pressured to make every single thing. Just have fun.”
All of the talent in the world can mean nothing for a player who has seemingly lost all confidence in himself. Pederson continued to prop up the youngster, but when the 2016 season came to a close the future seemed bleak.
“I’m just going to grind and come back better than I left. That’s my mindset. Whatever happens, happens. What I know is that I’m coming in ready to compete. Nothing is mine. Nothing in this world is yours. I’m going to come in here and compete, work for it and you have to compete for it. That’s my mindset.” Those were Agholor’s final words to reporters after leaving the Eagles locker room at the conclusion of the 2016 season. He was fully aware of the position he was in on Philadelphia’s roster.
Wide receiver was the biggest need on the Eagles roster entering the 2017 offseason. They were linked with nearly every free agent wideout as they were in dire need of reliable targets to help Wentz’s development.
They first signed Torrey Smith. Smith was a member of the 2013 Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens and had made his name as the primary deep threat for the big arm of Joe Flacco. Injuries had slowed him down a bit and he was coming off a down year in San Francisco. He was a cut by the 49ers to clear cap space for their potential rebuild but found a home in Philly. The move was just as big as it was for Smith as it was for the Eagles. It allowed the receiver a chance to get his career back on track with one of the NFL’s budding stars at quarterback. Wentz for the first time in his career would have an established veteran wide receiver to throw too.
Hours later the Eagles inked a deal with their prized signing of the 2017 offseason, bringing in Alshon Jeffery from the Chicago Bears. Jeffery would instantly step in as the team’s top receiver.
The two signings shifted the Eagles receiving corps from the bottom of the league to among the elite. Jeffery would be the WR1, Smith would serve as a deep threat. Matthews would be allowed to stay in the slot where he feels most comfortable. Fourth round pick Mack Hollins would be able to develop behind the talented group of veterans in front of him.
Agholor was seemingly the odd man out.
He knew his road to the final roster was not going to be as simple as it was in the past, and even if he made the roster his role was set to be significantly reduced. Drops were still his biggest issues and he went to work during OTA’s. The receiver began to chart his own drops in practice and caught hundreds of extra passes out of the JUG machine to work on his hands.
“It’s one thing to catch off the JUGS all the time, but then that’s not the same as coming out of an out route, or coming back on a curl or catching contested balls,” Agholor told reporters when asked about a personal JUG machine he had bought for home use. “So you catch from quarterback some, you can from the JUGS some, and you just train game-like situations, because that’s the most important thing.”
“When you’re throwing the football, I try to pluck ’em. If it happens, don’t worry about it in practice, catch the next one and keep working. When you come home, you watch the film, you remind yourself … you figure out what happened there and you get better from there.”
On an August morning in northwest New York the Buffalo Bills were putting together a few moves that could alter their franchise. General Manager Brandon Beane had just been hired a few months earlier from the Carolina Panthers. He was brought in after both the NFL draft and free agency meaning the roster he was working with was not at all his creation.
The Bills have been the league’s worst franchises for over a decade now. They have not played in the postseason since 1999 and Beane was put in charge of building the roster to get them there. Former first round receiver Sammy Watkins was heading into a contract season after the Bills did not pick up his rookie option. He clearly was not in the team’s future plans but still carried trade value. Cornerback Ronald Darby stepped back in 2016, but still had talent that another team could put to use.
Buffalo was desperate to put together a balanced offense around quarterback Tyrod Taylor. They still had McCoy from the trade with the Eagles a few years back and he was still the only reliable skill player surrounding Taylor.
Beane made two huge moves in quick succession. He first dealt Watkins to the Los Angeles Rams. In order to replace the team’s top receiver, he reached out to Eagles GM Howie Roseman. The Eagles were in desperate need of a talented defensive back and had a surplus of receivers on their hands. Roseman has never shied away from being active in the trade market and shocked the league when he chose to deal Jordan Matthews to the Bills for a package that brought Darby to Philly.
The move came out of nowhere and took the entire locker room by surprise. Matthews was a favorite among teammates and fans, and suddenly weeks before the beginning of a new season, his presence was lost.
Ertz compared the loss of Matthew to equivalent of “[losing] a brother” and Wentz seemed to take it especially hard.
“This is my first time experiencing this with someone that’s one of my best friends. Seeing him yesterday, it’s tough on him, too. It’s kind of out of the blue” said Wentz while walking off the field the at the next practice.
The trade that came seemingly out of nowhere proved the faith the Pederson and the rest of the Eagles coaching staff had in Agholor all along. With Matthews out of the way, Agholor was thrust in as the team’s new slot receiver, a position he always favored. A player struggling with confidence had just received the ultimate show of support from his organization, and the Eagles were betting on him to finally have his break out season.
“Going back to the offseason, I just saw a more confident player”
That’s what Wentz said of Agholor when asked about the receiver after the Eagles season opener against the Washington Redskins.
Agholor played his first game as Philadelphia’s full time slot receiver and it was the best game of his career to that point. He posted a career high 86 yards on six receptions. He did not drop any of his eight targets and was beaming with confidence.
Now wearing 13 after giving up number 17 to Jeffery, Agholor looked like a new man. He and Wentz hooked up for what might be the most impressive touchdown on the NFL season in the first quarter.
Agholor comes out of the slot and runs a deep route over the middle. He grabs the attention of three separate defensive backs at one point. Wentz turns into the offspring of Houdini and Michael Vick for a split moment as he deke’s and dodges potential sacks in the backfield. He rolls out of the pocket and scans the field in front of him. Agholor does an amazing job improvising on the play. The defensive backs get caught staring into the backfield, watching Wentz’s impressive feat as if they are deer caught in headlights. The receiver slips away and gets wide open near the sideline. Wentz rifles the ball his way, he makes the catch on a slightly off-target ball, breaks a tackle and waltzes into the end zone.
This was the perfect start to a new NFL season and a sign of what was to come from both Wentz and Agholor.
Wentz has put together an MVP caliber season to this point and Agholor has been a huge part of his success. Philadelphia enters their week 10 bye at an NFL best 8-1 and just hung 50 points on the Denver Broncos top ranked defense.
Through nine games so far this season Agholor has 29 receptions for 428 yards and five touchdowns. All of those are career highs.
Not on pace for career highs but literally his career high only nine games into the season.
Jeffery and Smith demanded most of the headlines heading into the season. Ertz is still just as good as ever. Adding an impressive Agholor to the fray makes the Eagles an impossible offense to shut down. There is no other team with a group as receivers as good and consistent as the Philadelphia Eagles and suddenly Wentz is the MVP frontrunner and the Eagles are Super Bowl favorites heading into the second half of the season.
Agholor has been more targeted than Smith so far and is the most efficient receiver on the roster to this point. His 2017 season has actually been the most efficient of any receiver the Eagles have had in the past three years.
He is averaging more yards per target than any of the other receivers by far, and his catch percentage in 2017 is also among the best. He is nearly averaging the same number of targets he was receiving in the past, but he is doing much more with them. Matthews was still a larger part of the offense the past two years that Agholor is now, but Matthews was the team’s primary target and was not lining up alongside Jeffery and Smith.
His efficiency in 2017 looks even more impressive when you compare him to some of the top slot receivers around the NFL.
All numbers recorded prior to week 10
While Landry, Baldwin and Fitzgerald serve as their team’s primary receiver, meaning their efficiency numbers will falter based off of pure volume. Cole Beasley, who plays second fiddle to Dez Bryant in Dallas, is the closest comparison to Agholor. They average the same amount of targets per game yet Agholor doubles him in both yards per target and yards per reception.
The reason for this disparity is because of the interesting skill set Agholor brings out of the slot. While the likes of Beasley, Landry and Fitzgerald focus more on shorter slant routes, drag routes and other routes right around the line of scrimmage, Agholor does this:
The receiver is a threat to beat you deep on every play. This forces slot corners and linebackers that may be covering him in man coverage to have to deal with a player with a skill set they may not usually be accustomed too. His crisp route running and agility allow him to quickly get separation, and Wentz’s great field awareness and accuracy get the ball in his hands the split second he gets open.
His elegant route running and ability to seemingly always get open is why Pederson and the rest of the Eagles staff were willing to deal with his struggles the past few seasons. Everyone along the line knew that Agholor would be a star if only he could catch the ball. Now that he is actually catching the ball, he has developed into possibly the best slot receiver in the league.
One way to cover up potential deficiencies in man coverage is to play zone coverage instead. When you drop back into zone you assign your linebackers to smother Agholor in case he goes shallow while the safeties will be able to pick him up when he runs deep instead.
Agholor is an incredible zone buster, though. He knows how to read zone coverage and exploit the gaps between them. He is a high IQ player, and sometimes will even stay in place and just allow the zones to shift around him. The receiver often seems a second ahead of the rest of the field and has a knack to always be in the one place where a defender isn’t when faced with a zone scheme.
He does still have off days, though. If the receiver can not gain separation then he disappears from games. Agholor has finally nailed down how to catch passes when wide open, but still struggles at the point of attack when covered.
The Kansas City Chiefs did a great job smothering him in man coverage when they met the Eagles in week 2. Agholor only had 3 targets on the day, and his one catch (for a touchdown) came on the Eagles final offensive play when the game was already out of reach. The Chiefs did a great job holding him in check and he just could not get going.
Agholor is not the biggest or strongest receiver and probably never will be. His hands have always been the thing that held him back most over the years and he may never develop into an Odell Beckham, Dez Bryant or Marvin Jones type player that can seemingly always snag the ball out of the air.
His improvements between 2016 and 2017 are drastic though. He has gotten faster and looks more confident in himself attacking defenses. Drops that plagued him in the past are now few and far between.
“This offseason, I just worked on my conditioning and worked on my speed, which is one of my strengths. I used using that to help the rest of my game,” Agholor said when asked about reducing the amount of passes he has dropped after the Eagles game against the Arizona Cardinals. “Speed is something to put people off balance, and when you match that with technique, it gives more separation so you can frame the ball better and it is easier on you.”
Agholor will continue working hard and should only get better as the year, and the seasons down the line, pass. He knows better than anyone how quickly a fan base can turn on you after a few bad games. His meteoritic rise has made him into one of the NFL’s stars and one of the underappreciated pieces of an Eagles team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Header and all photos via GettyImages; Quotes taken directly from press conference and reporter scrum transcripts