PHILADELPHIA -- Jordan Matthews, the second-round pick from Vanderbilt, has gotten a fair amount of attention during the past two weeks of OTA practices.
He’s gotten quite a bit from quarterbacks, who like throwing to a 6-foot-3 target with good hands. He’s gotten attention from defensive backs, who go where the ball is going. And Matthews has gotten a fair amount of attention from reporters working the who-will-replace-DeSean-Jackson angle.
That is understandable enough. The release of Jackson, a Pro Bowl receiver in his prime, was the most puzzling move yet during Chip Kelly’s tenure as head coach. Whatever you think of the move, and the explanations or lack of same, the Eagles created a need for themselves and Matthews is the draft pick destined to be seen as the solution to that problem.
But that’s not really fair. The truth is, the Eagles have to replace the element of speed that Jackson provided. They can do that a number of ways. Matthews might not have quite that elite speed himself, but he can be part of the mix in Kelly’s offense.
“I can see Matthews has a quick first step,” veteran cornerback Cary Williams said. “I can see him being very explosive out of breaks. And once he gets his hands on the ball, he looks like someone who can break a couple tackles and take a simple, six-yard curl into an 80-yard play.”
For now, Matthews is running with the second team as the slot receiver. That has more to do with Kelly’s approach to teaching rookies than anything. Chances are, Matthews will replace Jason Avant in the slot, with Jeremy Maclin, back from a torn ACL, stepping into Jackson’s spot on the outside.
Maclin has good speed, but not Jackson speed. The Eagles added elite speed when they acquired Darren Sproles in a trade with New Orleans. But as Kelly was quick to point out last week, Sproles is a running back. He’s not a wide receiver.
Still, Sproles’ speed can have the same effect on defenses as Jackson’s did. He can force defensive coordinators to account for him, and that is half the battle. Kelly’s ability to deploy his other weapons, to take advantage of the space created by that speed, is the other half.
“We knew [Sproles] was a really, really talented player, and when he got here, he showed that right from the jump,” Kelly said. “We heard from the coaches that coached him what an intelligent football player he is and learned that from the first day he was in this building, and how sharp he is and how dedicated he is.
“I talked to Norv Turner (who coached Sproles in San Diego) and he remarked to me when I saw him at one of the pro days, he said, ‘You'll have to slow him down because he only knows one speed.’ And that's the same thing you see. Darren practices and trains at one speed. It's awesome. He fits in with the culture that we want in terms of preparation, but it's everything we wanted when we got him here.”
Kelly’s ability to move Sproles around, and to mix and match all his other offensive weapons, will give the Eagles plenty of versatility this season. It is that, more than Matthews or any other one player, that will replace Jackson’s speed.