No matter what you think of Alshon Jeffery or Torrey Smith, there’s no arguing that the Eagles upgraded their WR corps Thursday.
According to ESPN, Philly wideouts ranked 31st in the league in receiving yards (1,849), yards per reception (10.7) and TD catches (8) last season. Thirteen NFL WRs caught at least as many scoring throws in 2016 as all Eagles WRs combined. And the group ranked worst in the league in drop rate (5.8%).
Nelson Agholor failed to rebound from a distressingly poor rookie year. Dorial Green-Beckham offered nothing to make you believe his 2nd chance will go better than his failed 1st. Josh Huff got dumped mid-season after an arrest.
The whole crew helped drag down Carson Wentz amid an ultimately encouraging debut campaign. Wentz looked the part of long-term answer at QB, and the Eagles trusted him enough to throw the league’s 6th-most pass attempts. But Wentz ranked an ugly 29th in yards per pass attempt (6.2) and 30th – among 30 qualifiers – in TD rate (2.6%).
Beyond the drops, Wentz dealt with a group that struggled to get downfield, which kept the pass offense working almost exclusively in the short range. TEs Zach Ertz and Trey Burton might well have been the top 2 downfield threats on that roster.
Enter the New Guys
Let’s start with Torrey Smith, who drew a wide range of reactions Thursday.
Many regular Eagles fans seemed excited to get the speedy wideout they remembered from Baltimore. Many others latched on to the dreadful grade that Smith earned from Pro Football Focus last year: 114th out of 119 WRs, within a few spots of both Agholor and Green-Beckham.
If Smith arrives in Philly’s offense as the same player he was last year with the Niners, then his signing won’t help much. But those scoffing at his addition act as though we only have 1 year of results to go on.
Smith’s PFF grades from the previous 5 seasons revealed a much better player …
Career grades for WR Torrey Smith, who is reportedly now set to hit the free-agent market this week. pic.twitter.com/2xngYAZ7ua— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) March 6, 2017
The veteran sure ain’t a stud, and his big San Francisco contract always looked like a mistake. But Smith ranks among the league’s best in getting downfield. His 17.0 yards per catch career rank 2nd behind only DeSean Jackson among active NFL players.
Smith’s presence should increase Wentz’s long-ball production, which will add yardage to the QB’s stat line, help the offense move and potentially open up space for teammates who operate in the shorter range.
The Top Target
We were all surprised to see Alshon Jeffery come off the market for just a 1-year deal, which suggests that the whole league’s wary about committing to him long term. But the $14 million he’ll make for that 1 season is top-shelf WR money. It suggests that the Eagles hope he’ll turn into a long-term answer—and that they’re willing to gamble a bit on a truer #1 WR for 2017 even if it doesn’t work out.
Jeffery instantly becomes Philly’s top wideout.
Jordan Matthews is a solid player and will head into just his age-25 season this fall. But he also ranked 90th in the league in yards per reception last season. That followed rankings of 71st and 47th in his 1st 2 campaigns.
Matthews tallied a solid 10.5% TD rate (16 scores among 152 catches) over his 1st 2 seasons, before snaring just 3 scores among his 73 receptions in Wentz’s 1st year.
Matthews has worked best from the slot and should settle in there primarily – perhaps near-exclusively – with Smith and Jeffery on the outsides in 2017.
Jeffery, meanwhile, ranks 14th among active players in yards per catch, averaging 15.0 per reception through his 5 pro campaigns. He’ll challenge your defense downfield as well—not to the degree that Smith does (at least not so regularly), but significantly more than the rest of his new team’s WR group.
Jeffery has fared modestly in catch rates so far -- 57.5% career – and proved inconsistent with his fantasy-scoring efficiency.
Among the 51 wideouts who drew 90+ targets last year, Jeffery ranked 41st in PPR points per target. In 2015, he finished 25th among 41 WRs with 90+ targets.
Jeffery fared better the 2 years before, though, with better health and Jay Cutler on the field more. In 2014, he finished 16th in PPR points per target among 41 WRs with 100+ targets. The season before found him 9th among 37 wideouts with 100+ targets.
Philly’s new top receiver has been inconsistent so far, but he has displayed top-end ability when healthy and playing with a solid QB. Even last year, ESPN charged Jeffery with just 1 drop among his 92 targets.
We’ll see how much Wentz can improve in his 2nd season, but it’s fair to say he has a shot to at least be as good as Cutler.
So who’s the biggest fantasy winner in this scenario? Wentz.
The passing volume was already there – he ranked 5th among QBs in pass attempts last year – and that came with Philly ranking just 18th in the league in passing share. The Eagles attempted a pass or took a sack on 59.4% of their offensive plays last season.
Wentz’s terrible efficiency in both yardage and scoring rendered him a largely useless fantasy QB. That should change in 2017—perhaps drastically.
Jeffery and Smith, meanwhile, face bigger battles for targets than in the situations they left. Jordan Matthews drew 23.1% of available targets in the 14 games he played last season, leading Philly with total looks. Zach Ertz ranked 2nd with 106 targets, garnering 19.6% of those available in his 14 games. Dorial Green-Beckham checked in 3rd with just 74 looks, followed by Darren Sproles (71), Nelson Agholor (69) and Trey Burton (60). No other Eagle reached 20.
Can Jeffery immediately overtake Matthews in target count? Well, first he’ll need to stay healthy. If he does, we’d guess Jeffery edges the incumbent. But combining Jeffery, Matthews and Ertz in an offense starting Year 2 under a 1st-time HC and 2nd-year QB leaves a lot of volume uncertainty.
Will Philadelphia pass as often in 2017 as it did last year? More often? Will the Eagles tally fewer total plays after racking up the league’s 3rd most (1,080) in 2016?
Whatever the projected pass-attempt total, it’s tough to envision 1 player drawing 25% or more of the looks in this offense next season. That will cap the upside—especially with no reason to project high TD efficiency.
Expect Jeffery to land somewhere in WR2 range in our 2017 projections, and probably toward the bottom of it. Matthews figures to show up near the bottom of WR3 range. Ertz won’t need as much target volume to secure a spot in TE1 range.
Torrey Smith, meanwhile, might have trouble surpassing 70 targets. He’ll be a late-round option in redraft leagues but looks much more attractive as a best-ball option than he does in lineup-setting formats.
What’s Left Behind?
Smith drew just 49 targets in his final Niners season, ranking a mere 4th in 1 of the league’s worst pass offenses. His departure will have little impact on the remaining Niners options, who will be playing under a new coaching staff and with new QBs.
Jeffery we all expected to leave Chicago. Now that it’s happened, there’s an open race to replace him as the new top wideout. If Kevin White can get and stay healthy in his 3rd season, he presents the most upside. Cameron Meredith emerged as an intriguing young player last year and should at least settle in among the Bears’ top 2 targets this year. We’ll see, of course, whether Chicago adds another competitor to the chase early in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Whoever leads the Bears’ WR corps will work with new QB Mike Glennon, who hasn’t started a game since 2014 but played solidly in 18 starts over his 1st 2 seasons.