By Pete Baxter
The Eagles announced Monday that rookie wide receiver DeVonta Smith is “week to week” after suffering an MCL sprain. Smith was the tenth pick in this year’s draft and is expected to be the number one receiver for his former college teammate Jalen Hurts.
Smith had an incredible college career at Alabama. He was the first wide receiver to win the AP Player of the Year award. Smith was also the first receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since Desmond Howard in 1991. Despite his incredible production, there was one lingering concern as he made the jump to the NFL: his extremely thin build. Listed at just 174 lbs., some have worried about his long-term durability.
With Smith out for at least the short-term, the Eagles are left with an extremely inexperienced, unproven receiving core. This should be a major concern, as this season is vital for the development of second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts. Jalen Reagor, last year’s first-round pick, likely steps into the number one receiver role until Smith can return. Reagor had a relatively unimpressive roo kie campaign in 2020, recording just 31 catches and dealing with injury concerns of his own. He also failed his conditioning test to start training camp.
Beyond Reagor in the depth chart are a list of similarly inexperienced players including third-year players Greg Ward Jr. (who averaged just 7.9 yards per catch on 38 receptions in 2020) and Travis Fulgham.
It seems clear that Jalen Hurts could use the safety net of a veteran wide receiver. This could keep the receiving core afloat until Smith returns and provide further leadership and guidance for the rest of the youngsters at the position.
However, with training camps fully underway, all of the highly sought-after, big-name players have long-since been off the free agency board. That said, there are still some intriguing names that are available as a stop-gap at wide receiver.
Let’s take a look at five possible names that Eagles’ GM Howie Roseman could consider bringing on at this point.
One note: of the free agent receivers still available, Larry Fitzgerald would be a great fit as a leader and a still-productive target. Unfortunately, it seems set in stone that, should he play this year, it will be with the Cardinals. Therefore, I did not include him on this list.
Target #1: Golden Tate
Golden Tate is available for a possible second stint in Philadelphia. Tate spent half of the 2018 season with the Eagles, before landing with the Giants in 2019.
Tate made a Pro Bowl in 2014 with the Lions, after recording 99 receptions and over 1,300 yards through the air. However, since his last 1,000-yard season in 2017, he has watched his numbers steadily decline.
He was suspended for four games in 2019 for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances (though he still recorded a respectable 49 catches through 12 games). He had a lackluster 2020 season for the Giants that saw him complain about his lack of opportunities. Ultimately, he was cut by the team.
That said, Tate could be a very productive option for the Eagles. At 33 years old, Tate is still highly athletic and has been quite durable throughout his career. He has proven that he can put up outstanding numbers when matched with an above-average quarterback.
After a disappointing 2020 season, he has been unable to latch onto a team up to this point of the offseason. He certainly enters 2021 with something to prove. A motivated Tate with a chip on his shoulder could be a good fit in Philadelphia this time around.
Target #2: Kenny Stills
Kenny Stills has never been a star in the league, but at 29 years old has been a reliable pass catcher since being taken in the fifth-round of the 2013 draft by the Saints. He has never recorded a 1,000-yard season, maxing out with 63 receptions and 931 yards for Miami in 2015.
He spent most of the last two seasons with the Houston Texans. In 2019 he caught 40 passes for 561 yards through 13 games. Unfortunately, he saw his production and role fall off completely last season. He only had 11 receptions before waived by the Texans in late November. He would finish the season on the Bills practice squad.
Certainly not the most exciting name on the list, but Stills is a veteran presence who could be picked up on the cheap. Last year’s debacle of a season in Houston shouldn’t be taken as evidence of Stills’ diminishing skills. He still has football in him and could be a decent safety blanket for Jalen Hurts.
Target #3: Danny Amendola
At 36 years old, Amendola is the elder statesman on this list. Amazingly, he had the most productive 2020 season out of all of these names. He has also expressed a high level of interest in playing this season. Despite that desire and remaining skill, he has not being picked up by any teams up to this point.
Amendola finished the 2020 season with a respectable 46 receptions and 602 yards in 14 games for the Lions. Amendola, of course made a name for himself as Tom Brady’s reliable slot receiver for the 2013 through 2017 seasons. However, he has stayed consistent into his twilight years in Detroit, catching 62 passes in 2019.
Amendola is a champion. Amendola has great hands. Amendola could be a great veteran weapon and locker room presence. As noted, despite his advanced age, he may in fact be the most productive player left on the free agent market.
Target #4: Dez Bryant
I know, Eagles fans, I know. But hear me out.
The last time we saw Dez Bryant in extended action was back in 2017. He was still a borderline Pro Bowl talent, catching 69 passes for 838 yards for the Cowboys. He set the franchise career record for receiving touchdowns that year. Unfortunately, after that solid outing, the wheels completely fell off for the former First-Team All-Pro receiver.
He would join up with the New Orleans Saints just over halfway through the 2018 season. Tragically, he almost immediately tore his Achilles tendon just two days after signing with the team. He would miss the rest of the season.
He was out of the league in 2019 as he rehabilitated his injury. Finally in October of 2020, he was picked up by the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad. He would bounce back and forth between the practice squad and the active roster for the remainder of the year.
Dez Bryant is adamant that he still has football in him. He is hungry for one last opportunity. His once beloved Cowboys have not given him that opportunity. What better way for the 32-year-old receiver to mount his comeback than to sign on with a division rival?
That said, of the names on this list, Bryant is one of the biggest risks. His inability to become a contributor in a weak Ravens’ receiving core last season seems to point to his diminished ability at this stage of his career. Unfortunately, he may just not have anything left in the tank.
Wildcard: Josh Gordon
Speaking of question marks, you can’t truly discuss the remaining available receivers without at least talking about Josh Gordon. Hard to believe it has been eight years since Gordon took the NFL by storm in his sophomore season in 2013. That season, he was First-Team All Pro while recording 87 receptions and 1,646 yards for an amazing 18.9 yards per catch.
Unfortunately, the now 30-year-old receiver’s career has been completely derailed since. Gordon has consistently succumbed to addiction and substance abuse. He has faced violation after violation and suspension after suspension. In his brief stint with the Patriots in 2018/19, he still showed a great deal of potential. In 17 games with the Patriots, he caught 60 passes for 1,007 yards for nearly 17 yards per catch.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last. He ended his Patriots stint on the injured reserve. He moved on to the Seahawks, where his substance abuse issues once again reached a breaking point. He wound up missing the entirety of the 2020 season due to a series of suspensions.
In July, Gordon once again applied for reinstatement to the league. He has been randomly drug tested for the past three months by the NFL and has passed all of his tests according to a source at ESPN.
Whether or not Gordon gets another chance in the league has yet to be seen. Should the Eagles kick the tires on Gordon?
Worst case scenario, Roger Goodell determines that Gordon is out of second chances and his reinstatement bid is denied.
In a best case scenario, Gordon becomes arguably the greatest comeback story in NFL history. He becomes a second star receiver to pair with DeVonte Smith, and a viable top receiver should Smith miss extended time.
Unfortunately, his future is still completely up in the air. Even if the NFL approves his reinstatement, it is hard to trust Gordon with his own future beyond that point, based on the patterns of his career thus far. Most likely a no-go.
Don’t Count Out a Trade
Fortunately for the Eagles, they have the draft capital to make a move on the trade market. If none of the names listed here inspire any confidence, names like N’Keal Harry and even Odell Beckham Jr. have been floated on the trade block.
Regardless of the method used, the Eagles need to make a move to bolster their wide receiver depth. Jalen Hurts deserves a fair shake to earn the trust of the franchise and the fans, but without any reliable (or healthy) weapons on the outside, that may not be possible in 2021.
More to come from Philly.