For Nelson Agholor, it’s never been a question of talent.
The Eagles wide receiver is fast enough. He’s agile enough. And he’s smart enough. Sometimes it takes a fresh perspective to remind a struggling player of what it was that got him to the NFL in the first place.
“Nelson Agholor’s a first-round pick,” new Eagles receivers coach Mike Groh said, “and he’s got first-round talent.”
After his first two seasons, many had used a different noun following “first-round.” But if the adage of draft selections needing three years before they can be effectively evaluated applies, then Agholor has another season to deliver upon untapped talent and avoid the “bust” label.
He appears to understand that the clock is ticking. Agholor looked like a different receiver during spring practices. Was he as impressive as new addition Alshon Jeffery? No. Was he as consistent? No. Should workouts that are without contact be taken with a grain of skepticism? Yes.
But if you haven’t already written off the 24-year old, there are ample reasons to believe that Agholor may at least become a more reliable option for quarterback Carson Wentz this coming season.
“He’s always been an explosive guy, but boy, it sure seems like he might have gotten quicker and more explosive this offseason,” Wentz said. “He’s getting open, making plays. It’s good to see.”
Jordan Matthews’ knee injury allowed for more opportunities in the slot over the last month, and Agholor took advantage. But there are some questions as to whether he will have enough chances to improve upon his first two years after the additions of Jeffery and Torrey Smith.
Agholor, for his part, isn’t looking that far ahead. Catching passes and scoring touchdowns against cornerbacks who can’t press and defenders who can’t touch Wentz is one thing. Doing it in training camp, the preseason and, finally, the regular season, is another.
“Delayed gratification,” Agholor said after the final minicamp practice on Thursday. “Don’t worry about it. At the end of the day, right now it’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to make plays. You’re supposed to be in shape. You’re supposed to catch the football.”
A year ago, Agholor catching the football couldn’t be presumed. The drops started in the spring and they persisted through the season. There were technical reasons for the mistakes, but mostly, there were mental lapses. Agholor admitted after a rough outing in Seattle that he had lost his confidence and a week later he was inactive.
Groh, who was hired in January after the Eagles fired Greg Lewis, said that Agholor’s strong spring can partially be attributed to a self-assurance that can only come from repeated success. It’s a Catch-22.
“I think confidence is a result of demonstrated performance,” Groh said. “And the more positive results that he has in practice, I think that will elevate his confidence.”
Agholor still had more drops than he should. He was reminded of them each time he went to his locker stall at the NovaCare Complex. He logged the number of drops he had every practice on an eraser board – something he said he did at Southern Cal.
But that wasn’t the only change Agholor made this offseason. He said he altered his conditioning. He said he still weighs around his listed 198 pounds – “My game is speed.” – but he looked a little broader in the shoulders.
More than anything, though, Agholor used the time off to “self-reflect” and have a “gut check.”
“A lot of times it’s personal. You’re going through a whole mental thought process and, ‘What can I do to get better?’ ” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “The addition of Torrey and Alshon, and sort of him kind of taking that step back and not [having] that pressure of every day having to perform has really helped him.”
Agholor said that he also watched the veteran receivers closely to glean some of the traits that have made them successful. With Smith, it was his eye focus and how he looks the ball all the way into his tuck. And with Jeffery, it’s how he can create separation with his second move.
But the most important new face may be Groh, who had tried to recruit Agholor when he was at Alabama. He said that he went back to basics with all his receivers, but hitting the restart button may have helped Agholor, who had developed some poor habits in his stance and first step, the most.
“I like Groh a lot because of his attention to detail,” Agholor said. “He’s been able to communicate with me in a way that I respect and I’m able to take it in.”
When Groh arrived in Chicago, Jeffery was coming off a rookie season in which he caught only 24 passes for 367 yards and three touchdowns. Over the next two seasons, the receiver averaged 87 catches for 1,277 yards and nine touchdowns.
“This isn’t a microwave league, it’s an oven,” Matthews said. “I think sometimes people have success so early that a trend takes place and everybody thinks, ‘Oh, well, wide receivers are supposed to come in and get it.’ But that wasn’t always the case.”
The class of 2014 — Odell Beckham, Matthews, et al — may have skewed expectations, but Agholor had regressed in his sophomore season despite getting relatively the same amount of playing time.
“I think that two years is a fair timeline,” Groh said. “I used to hear Coach [Bill] Parcells talk about it all the time — by the third year, a guy ought to tell you who he’s exactly going to be at this level. Nelson is going into his third year, but a number of guys going into their third year – that’s where they really show who they’re going to be.”
With Jeffery and Smith, Agholor may not get half the snaps even if he has improved. But Smith isn’t exactly cemented into a starting spot and with Matthews’ absence over the last month, Agholor showed that he could work inside.
“There’s not a lot of slot receivers that can go outside and still have success,” Groh said. “With his speed, his athleticism, his quickness he can function at a high level outside, and when we moved him inside … he really looked comfortable in there.”
Could Agholor benefit from a lower public bar after two years of constant scrutiny? There’s something to be said for the element of surprise.
“Time,” Agholor said, “helps.”