Quez Vs. The Field
Birds Better With Watkins Or Different No. 3 WR?
Even if you chuckled at Nick Sirianni’s hyperbolic proclamation at the end of the 2021 season – the one about Quez Watkins becoming one of the league’s top No. 2 receivers – you probably harbored raised expectations last season for the ascending third-year wideout.
Watkins, of course, was fresh off a breakout sophomore campaign, producing 43 receptions for 647 yards and a touchdown in 17 games (12 starts).
Just like his receptions and receiving total, Watkins’ 62 pass targets ranked third among Eagles’ pass catchers.
Actions speak louder than words, however, and Sirianni’s effusiveness hardly precluded the Eagles from upgrading the receiver room.
On the opening night of the 2022 NFL Draft, A.J. Brown was acquired via trade with the Tennessee Titans, reshaping the positional landscape and effectively demoting Watkins to No. 3 in the hierarchy.
Though Watkins graciously accepted his complementary role and the camaraderie forged among the wide receivers — Watkins relished his newfound identity as “Fast Batman” — his on-field performance failed to satisfy the heightened expectations.
There was a troubling pattern to Watkins’ gaffes – whether late-game fumble to spoil a comeback against the Commanders, or lack of fight through a route leading to his quarterback’s interceptions against Dallas, or a costly drop in Super Bowl LVII – that played a prominent role in three of the team’s most memorable losses.
All told, Watkins finished with 33 receptions for 354 yards and three touchdowns on 51 targets.
To his credit, Watkins spoke candidly of his struggles during a locker room clean-out, taking ownership for his shortcomings and vowing to learn and grow from the misfortune.
Watkins also revealed he had been playing with a Grade 2 left shoulder sprain, sustained Week 13 against the Titans.
“Quez did a lot of things that really affected the game that don’t show up in the stat sheet, with how he stretches the field,” Sirianni said at the NFC Coaches Breakfast last week. “A lot of the balls that A.J. [Brown] caught over the middle, if you look at the tape, you see Quez running through the middle of the field to pull a safety out of there and to really stretch the field to make sure that the window is open.
“I would say the difference this year and last year was opportunity. He didn’t have as many opportunities. And we tried to be up front about that as much as we can and say, ‘Hey, the pass game runs through them, and Quez, you’re gonna have to this and make plays when it’s time to make plays.’”
Sirianni further explained that Watkins’ desire to be more productive would’ve been difficult give the flow of the passing offense, with Brown and DeVonta Smith seeing most of the targets, along with tight end Dallas Goedert.
In situations when the Eagles needed a big play, those three came first.
“That’s not an indication that we don’t trust Quez, it’s just the indication that our pass game runs through those three guys,” Sirianni said. “And so, I know Quez wanted to make some of the plays that he felt like he didn’t. I think also, he’s taking ownership and accountability of him getting better and not looking at anybody else.
“And that’s what you want from your team, for everybody to look in the mirror and say, ‘How do I get better? How do I help this team win that last game?’ So, Quez is embodying what our team embodies, the accountability piece of how he gets better.”
While the Eagles will surely need more consistent production from their third receiver moving forward, they won’t be able to upgrade every perceived inadequacy, especially given their cap and draft pick restrictions.
They need to be strategic and calculated in their investments.
Taking into account the team’s affinity for stockpiling offensive playmakers – and additional firepower for quarterback Jalen Hurts – Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njiba would be an enticing first-round choice, surprising as it might seem given their other needs.
The former Buckeye possesses exceptional ball skills and body control and is a savvy route-runner. Smith-Njiba would be a plug-and-play pick from the get-go and arm the Eagles with another high-level chain-mover who can do damage after the catch.
Elsewhere in the draft – probably in the late-second, early-third round – one of my favorite pass-catchers in this class, Michigan State’s Jayden Reed, figures to slot in.
The 5-foot-11, 187-pound Reed offers positional versatility and his ball skills are accentuated by his competitiveness at the catch point. Reed is also very effective on the move.
Further enhancing Reed’s value is his special teams upside, particularly as a punt returner, where he returned three for touchdowns.
Realistically, though, targets will be at a premium. As Sirianni noted, how many opportunities will any addition be afforded to make if the passing game goes through Brown, Smith, and Goedert?
Given that, it wouldn’t appear to be a sound allocation of resources to devote premium draft capital on a prospect promptly slotted fourth in the pecking order upon arrival.
That’s not to say that an upgrade isn’t warranted.
Sure, the free-agent talent pool has all but parched, but if the Eagles continue to subscribe to their new roster-building blueprint of the off-season, then perhaps a cost-effective, proven commodity with some upside – such as former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus – would fit the bill.
Zaccheaus, 25, might be diminutive at 5-foot-8, 193 pounds, but the former Virginia standout is on the heels of a career season in which he reeled in 40 receptions for 533 yards and three touchdowns on 61 targets.
The St. Joe’s Prep product is sure-handed, effective in space, dependable and quarterback friendly. And despite a limited sample size at the pro level, Zaccheaus could offer added value as a returner.
Other players of note on the market – with varying price tags – include Jarvis Landry, Randall Cobb, Richie James, and DeMarcus Robinson. The most accomplished free agent is Julio Jones.
Though miscast as a slot receiver, Watkins does offer some value as a vertical field-stretcher, a premium trait that teams covet.
One glance at the state of the current depth chart beyond Brown and Smith would seemingly indicate Watkins will factor into the plans in some capacity.
Whether or not you believe the Eagles – Sirianni, in particular – are still bullish on the polarizing fourth-year receiver, they’re likely to be afford Watkins every opportunity to reestablish his role in training camp.
Competition is to be expected, but the caliber of that competition remains to be determined.
In contrast to last season, Watkins will have ample opportunities to rewrite his past narrative in the coming months.
– Andrew DiCecco (@AndrewDiCecco) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.