Birds' Matthews slotted at No. 2 for the time being

Receiver Jordan Matthews says he is focused on learning from the veterans, not on whether he will start for the Eagles.
Receiver Jordan Matthews says he is focused on learning from the veterans, not on whether he will start for the Eagles. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff)
Posted: June 04, 2014

The slot receiver position - Jason Avant's old spot - is there for Jordan Matthews to take.

The rookie has been running with the Eagles' second team behind veteran Brad Smith during organized team activities, but it's really only a matter of time before Matthews either wins the job or it is handed to him.

The Eagles didn't draft Matthews in the second round for him to sit and watch. However, there will be a learning process and the usual bumps in the road that many receivers - even highly drafted ones - face once they reach the NFL.

Matthews, 21, has no illusions about whether he is on the fast track to starting or whether he can slide under the radar after shouldering much of the load in Vanderbilt's pass offense. He said he is in the "here and now." And right now, he's just a rookie only weeks into being a professional.

"I don't worry about all that stuff," Matthews said when asked about the vacancy in the slot. "I'll try and learn from the guys who are older. Try and learn from Brad, who is an awesome pro and has played in the league for a long time."

The Eagles obviously see enough in the 30-year-old Smith to have him running with the starters.

But he has never really played inside. The nod is probably more an indication that he has the early inside track on the fifth receiver spot on the roster than it does of his being the eventual No. 1 slot receiver.

Many players - receivers, tight ends, and running backs - will fill the role. The Eagles sometimes will use more than just one slot receiver on a play. But there likely will be a lead guy. And with the departure of Avant, who played inside on 78 percent of his pass routes, Matthews has an opportunity to play significant snaps in his first season.

The Eagles also have a chance to get more production out of the position. Avant caught only 31 of 62 targeted passes for 404 yards out of the slot in 2013. The year before, he pulled in 51 of 67 targeted throws for 598 yards.

DeSean Jackson ran the second-most routes (144) out of the slot and had 28 catches for 373 yards from that spot in 2013. Tight end Zach Ertz (15 catches for 178 yards) can pick up some of the slack, as can Jeremy Maclin (27 catches for 385 yards out of the slot in 2012), but coach Chip Kelly has been touting Matthews' skill set as ideal for playing inside.

"You've got to be physical," the 6-foot-3, 212-pound Matthews said after Monday's practice. "There's going to be a lot of big guys in there."

Matthews caught more than a handful of passes over the middle from second-string quarterback Mark Sanchez on Monday. He hustled to the sideline each time his unit took a rest.

"Since middle school, I've done that," said Matthews, who stayed after practice to catch more passes from Sanchez. "It's not like something I decided to do on a whim. It's who I am."

The Eagles love the intangibles Matthews brings to the table, but it was his dominating performance in the Southeastern Conference that first caught their eye. He ended his career as the conference's all-time leader in catches (262) and receiving yards (3,759).

On a team without a star quarterback, Matthews drew scrutiny every week from opposing defenses. Vanderbilt coach James Franklin (now at Penn State) lined him up almost everywhere.

"At Vanderbilt, I was in a situation where I had to do a lot of different things, play a lot of different positions," Matthews said. "Right now, I'm able to focus pretty much most of my attention on one thing and try and be great at that."

Of course, if either Jeremy Maclin or Riley Cooper gets hurt, Matthews or fellow rookie Josh Huff will be asked to step up. The Eagles suffered a scare when Maclin, who is coming back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, fell to the turf toward the end of practice and began clutching his left knee.

Maclin, though, bounced up after a few moments and said afterward that he was OK.

Matthews said he couldn't wait to get back to practice after missing Thursday's workout to attend the NFLPA's rookie symposium in Los Angeles.

"Signed some autographs. Took some pictures. You know, the Hollywood stuff," Matthews said. "I'm not too much into that. I was ready to get back to practice."


jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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