Eagles' rookie receivers have chance at slot, returner roles

The highlights from newest Eagle Johnny Wilson (0:43)

Check out the highlights from the Eagles' newest wide receiver Johnny Wilson. (0:43)

PHILADELPHIA -- Wide receiver is one of the biggest positions of intrigue for the Philadelphia Eagles heading into OTAs this week.

The top of the depth chart is well represented with A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith making up one of the best tandems in the league. But things get murky from there.

The Eagles struggled to land on a No. 3 receiver last season. Duties were primarily split between Quez Watkins, Olamide Zaccheaus and Julio Jones, none of whom were retained this offseason.

Looking to reshuffle the room, they signed veteran free agent Parris Campbell to a one-year deal in March, then drafted Ainias Smith out of Texas A&M and Florida State's Johnny Wilson in Rounds 5 and 6, respectively. (They also brought on veteran receiver DeVante Parker in March, but he announced his retirement Monday.)

That group will compete this spring and summer, along with the likes of third-year player Britain Covey, for snaps in an offense being reshaped by offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.

Smith has a chance to steal the show.

The Eagles need a starting slot receiver, and he checks a lot of boxes. Smith generated 816 yards from scrimmage and averaged 15 yards per reception last season. He built a reputation at A&M for being a willing catcher in traffic and playmaker once the ball is in his hands. He credits his work as a running back during the 2020 season for helping him to read blocks and operate more efficiently in open space.

"His ability to run after the catch. His ability to get in and out of breaks. I think he is extremely tough. I love that about him. That's really what sticks out. Catches the ball really well," said coach Nick Sirianni. "It's going to be fun to see how we can get him the football and different ways that he can contribute both on special teams and on offense."

Smith is a candidate for a returner role as well after racking up two punt return touchdowns for the Aggies. Eagles special teams coach Michael Clay described him as "splashy" and "explosive." His health will be worth monitoring this spring and summer as he returns from a stress fracture in his left shin that was discovered during the pre-draft process.

Wilson brings a totally different skill set to the table. At 6-foot-6 and 235 pounds, he has rare size for the position and impressed evaluators with a level of balance and body control not often found in larger wideouts. His best season came in 2022 when he had 43 catches for 897 yards (20.9 per catch) with five touchdowns for the Seminoles.

"Being this size and being able to do some of the things I can do with my body, getting in and out of my breaks and having super long arms, sometimes it's an advantage especially [against] a lot of small corners and smaller defenders," Wilson said. "Over the years I've tried to do a lot of training and using my body to my advantage."

Parker (6-3, 215) has also practiced the art of the contested catch. He had a monster year in 2019 for the Miami Dolphins (1,202 receiving yards, nine touchdowns) but has not reached those heights since, due in part to injuries. He had 33 catches for 394 yards last season for the New England Patriots.

"That's the biggest part of this, just being healthy," Parker said.

Campbell is another vet with a notable injury history. But he can still run (he clocked a 4.31-second 40-yard dash at the combine in 2019) and was with Sirianni in Indianapolis for two years when Sirianni was the Colts' offensive coordinator.

Then there's Covey, the team's standout punt returner who flashed during his limited reps in the slot in 2023 (4 catches, 2 first downs, 6 targets, 42 yards).

How many receivers will the Eagles keep? And who will emerge as the starter alongside Brown and Smith? Much will depend on who develops a connection with quarterback Jalen Hurts over the next several months.

One benefit for the younger players in particular is they have two of the top receivers in the game to take their cues from.

"I have a great room, a great group of guys that I'm going to be surrounded by," said Smith. "So I'm definitely excited to just go to work with them, learn a lot from those guys -- and being able to watch them play, practice, all of those things -- and just learning how to play at the level they play at."