By Michael McCarthy
It’s been a long time since the Eagles had as much riding on a rookie’s performance than Jordan Matthews, the wide receiver chosen in the 2014 second round.
When coach Chip Kelly released receiver DeSean Jackson on March 28 and essentially replaced him with former Saints running back Darren Sproles, the move left a hole in Kelly’s multi-dimensional offense.
So, it wasn’t a surprise when the Eagles selected Vanderbilt receiver Matthews, who caught 201 passes in his final two collegiate seasons, and ended his time as the SEC’s career leader in receptions (262) and receiving yards (3,759).
Matthews has the one thing Kelly wants in his receivers above all — the ability to deal with man-to-man coverage. As the coach said at this year’s owners meetings, it’s on his mind a lot.
“Having guys who can get open versus man coverage is a key deal,” Kelly said. “Whether it’s Coop [Riley Cooper] or Mac [Jeremy Maclin] or DeSean or whomever. I think that’s the one thing we know as a group going in, one-on-one coverage is a big deal for us. It is a big deal in this league. I don’t have the numbers, but people probably played us more man than most teams in the league. We’re always looking for guys who can exploit that matchup. The addition of Sproles — are you gonna play us in man? Now you have to have a linebacker cover him if he’s the back. That’s kind of a huge addition when we thought about bringing him [Sproles] in.”
Matthews will likely see a lot of time in the slot in his new home, though such designations are generally too simple for Kelly’s passing game, which needs Matthews to be a high-volume receiver. Only Buffalo’s Robert Woods and Arizona’s John Brown had more targets than Matthews’ 19, and no receiver has more catches than his 15 — and they’ll do that by running him all over the place.
Matthews is already entrenched in the Kelly system, meaning that he’ll do everything from little wheel screens to deep sideline routes. Though he has the basic physical attributes to make that all happen, there are two things which come up on his tape — collegiate and professional — that are concerning.
Matthews leads the NFL through this preseason with 113 yards after the catch — he has 134 receiving yards overall — but that doesn’t mean he’s getting a lot of those yards after contact.
Primarily, Matthews grabs real estate after the catch the same way a lot of Kelly’s receivers do — because Philly’s offense requires defensive players to spread out in different ways, and it’s easier to throw receivers open. Because of this, Matthews’ two obvious liabilities won’t show up in the stats, but they’re evident on tape.
For a guy his size (6-3, 212), Matthews has shown a disturbing tendency to go down at the slightest contact — shoulder hits, ankle tackles, and arm drag-downs. Kelly will put his receivers in positions to succeed away from defenses, but it’s a bit distressing how much Matthews will appear to need that, at least for now. Especially when things are so well-blocked for him.
Against the Steelers in pre-season, Nick Foles hit Matthews with a quick receiver screen, and there was textbook blocking in front of him by the tight end, right guard and right tackle. Matthews blew through this, but when Steelers safety Mike Mitchell ankle-tackled him.
Matthews is also prone to losing the ball when tested by defensive backs on contested catches, and this goes back to his college days. Though he impressed at the Senior Bowl, Matthews had a couple of drops, and whether this is a product of concentration or an inability to win those physical battles, it’s going to be a problem over time unless it’s fixed.
That’s not to say that Matthews is some sort of bust. He’s a smooth accelerator, and when he’s up to full speed, he’s tough to catch, especially on outs and drag routes; wherever he can maximize defensive space with his overall speed and agility. And he’s a willing blocker, which is crucial in this run-heavy offense.
But if he’s to be a leading receiver for the Eagles, well, Chip Kelly’s system may be high-speed and razzle-dazzle, but an element of physical toughness is needed.