Eagles not in strong position at wide receiver

Posted: August 27, 2014

LOOKING OVER what is and is not settled, as the Eagles prepare to wrap up the preseason Thursday night against the Jets, the wide receiver position remains a bigger question than the team probably would prefer.

Ideally, if you're going to cut your Pro Bowl wideout in the offseason - yeah, a mention of DeSean Jackson, fire up the bile ducts - you'd like to see your wideout corps dominate in the preseason, so the nattering media nabobs wouldn't have that to natter about, at least.

Starters Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin have missed time with injury, Cooper quite a bit of time, appearing only last week against Pittsburgh (three catches, 25 yards). It might be telling that the No. 2 preseason receiver is not a wideout, but tight end Zach Ertz (eight catches, 110 yards).

Second-round rookie Jordan Matthews has done his part, leading the team with 15 preseason catches for 134 yards, in three games. But it would have been nice to have seen much more from third-round rookie Josh Huff, who really wasn't all that distinguishable from Quron Pratt or Kadron Boone in practice.

Huff ran back a kickoff for a touchdown in the preseason opener at Chicago, then suffered an AC joint sprain returning a kick in the next game, at New England. Huff said yesterday he doesn't know how long he will be sidelined. (Though Huff also said he was "looking to get ready for Week 1.") His final preseason numbers: One catch, 4 yards, five kickoff returns for 169 yards, 102 of them in that one Soldier Field dash.

"I feel like any rookie coming into the NFL is looking to make a big splash," Huff said yesterday. "Fortunately, I was able to do that in Chicago . . . but the following week, I had a setback. My whole point is just to continue getting better, each and every day, whether I'm practicing or not practicing."

Toward that end, Huff, who did not practice, was catching tennis balls yesterday as they caromed off a NovaCare wall, his hands bound together with a thick blue band.

"The way I [get better] is to do the little things. Tennis balls help with your hand-eye coordination," Huff said. "When it's my time to come back I'm definitely looking to make an impact on the team . . . Of course, I would have hoped to have more game reps."

Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said yesterday that Huff has "shown us enough; he'll be a good player in this league."

Brad Smith entered camp ahead of Matthews as the No. 1 slot receiver. Smith, dogged by a groin injury, has one preseason catch for 4 yards. If Chip Kelly weren't so in love with Smith's versatility, you'd have to wonder whether he'd make the team.

There was a lot of optimism coming out of the spring around former Tampa Bay second-round wideout Arrelious Benn, coming off an ACL tear suffered early in the Birds' 2013 camp, even though Benn had finished three of his four NFL seasons on IR. Coaches were impressed by the way he attacked his rehab last season. But Benn, who returned to practice yesterday after suffering a concussion last Thursday against the Steelers, probably needs to do something extraordinary against the Jets to avoid being trimmed in the cutdown from 75 to 53 this weekend. His only preseason catch came at New England, when a touchdown pass squirted out of the hands of Ifeanyi Momah, right to Benn.

"I stayed healthy," Benn said, when asked to assess his preseason, and given his history, that surely was priority one. He said his biggest challenge has been "to let everything go, just go out there and play full speed, whatever happens, happens. I feel like I've been able to do that . . . If I get hurt, at least I'm going full speed when I get hurt. I'm not afraid to get hurt. I know what it's like to get hurt. It's football."

Benn said he hopes the evaluation process for making the roster will include all those offseason hours he put in, his work in the spring and this summer in practice, not just the preseason games.

Former Michigan State standout B.J. Cunningham, who spent much of the past two seasons on the Eagles' practice squad and made the roster for a 4-week stretch last year, was gone in last weekend's first cuts, after catching two passes for 34 yards in exhibitions.

Momah (five catches, 43 yards) has improved dramatically from a year ago, but that might say more about how far away he was in 2013 than how ready he is now; you get the feeling the Eagles' main question with Momah is whether he'll be snatched up if they cut him and try to bring him back for the practice squad. "This year, it's up in the air, there's a lot of opportunity for everybody," in Thursday's preseason finale, Momah said yesterday. "It's exciting."

A big roster question with Momah, 6-7, 239, is how he fits into special teams, a must for a sub receiver. Momah has been getting a crash course there the last few weeks; he pointed out he even has a tackle on a kickoff return.

"This game's important, because not everybody's going to be playing," Momah said, noting starters and select key subs aren't scheduled to appear against the Jets. "They want to see guys take reps at those positions. You've got to prove yourself, and I'm going to do that."

Damaris Johnson worked really hard - seven catches for 71 yards - and even filled in at running back against New England, but the Eagles had 2 years before this camp to assess Johnson. If they want to continue on with him past this week, it'll be a surprise.

Will Murphy? Jeff Maehl? Pratt, the Rutgers rookie from Palmyra, N.J.? No game-changers in that bunch, maybe a sixth receiver.

"We love the guys that we have here on our roster," Shurmur said, when asked about his wideouts. Then he talked about the possibility of getting some different ones.

"The system is set up where, if there's guys available at any position, that can help you win football games and fit into your culture, then you try to get them," Shurmur said. "But we like the guys we have, and we feel like we can play winning football with the guys that are here."


On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian

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