Friday’s trade that delivered starting cornerback Ronald Darby to the Philadelphia Eagles for receiver Jordan Matthews and a 2018 third-round draft pick sent a resounding message from the Eagles about how bleakly they regarded their cornerback situation and also how modestly they valued Matthews’ production from the slot position.
It also sent an indirect but equally resonant message about the Eagles’ expectations for their most prized possession, second-year quarterback Carson Wentz.
Making up the 900 or so yards that Matthews likely would have given them won’t be as difficult as it might seem. Those who have concerns that new slot receiver Nelson Agholor, who has been a first-round bust so far and hasn’t proven that he can step up to mirror Matthews’ production, aren’t seeing the bigger picture. The Eagles aren’t intending to be as slot-centric as they’ve been the past two years. That’s why they signed proven outside weapons Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in free agency and drafted North Carolina vertical threat Mack Hollins.
Making up Matthews’ reliability is a different story. Though he was prone to drops and struggled to keep feet inbounds on sideline routes and end zone routes, Matthews was unquestionably Wentz’s go-to receiver on manageable third downs, especially in the face of heavy pressure. Matthews caught Wentz’s first career touchdown pass and then joined Wentz in an choreographed end zone skit.
On Thursday night, in the preseason opener, Wentz hit Matthews three times on his four passes, including a third-down and fourth-down conversion. On the third and fourth downs, Wentz found Matthews after first sidestepping pressure from a Green Bay defense that blitzed the Eagles relentlessly.
Matthews was also one of Wentz’s closest friends, linked by religious faith and classy upbringings. Wentz drove Matthews to the airport Friday night after some teammates had organized a going-away gathering.
Though the cornerback-deficient Eagles desperately needed Darby, trading Matthews appeared inconsistent with their offseason missive of surrounding their young franchise player with as much weaponry as possible.
Which is why it can’t be understated that Friday’s trade also signified the team’s belief that Wentz’s impressive preseason in another indication that he’s quickly ascending into the special franchise quarterback that the Eagles expect him to become soon.
The Eagles want Wentz to be the kind of NFL quarterback that frequently leads deep playoff runs and isn’t reliant on his security blankets to win. That’s just the nature of the NFL. Players come and go, and when the best quarterbacks lose their favorite receivers they simply find new favorite receivers.
Tom Brady lost Wes Welker and found Julian Edelman. Ben Roethlisberger lost Mike Wallace and found Antonio Brown. Russell Wilson lost Golden Tate and found Doug Baldwin. Cam Newton lost Kelvin Benjamin to an ACL injury two years ago and led the Panthers to a 15-win season and the Super Bowl. Philip Rivers lost Keenan Allen – for the second time – to a knee injury and found Tyrell Williams.
“It’s like anything that we do in life – the next person steps up and here we go,” said Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, a former quarterback himself, explaining the trade in his Saturday press conference.
Matthews, who had one year left on his deal, didn’t have to be traded. The Eagles clearly weren’t going to re-sign him and reset the market for a slot receiver but they could’ve hung onto him for Wentz’s developmental benefit and let Matthews walk at the end of the year with an eye on a compensatory pick in 2019.
But the Eagles believed enough in Wentz and their newer offensive weapons that they pulled the trigger anyway. That’s a tremendous amount of a confidence in a young quarterback who has played just 16 NFL games.
If the Eagles didn’t think Wentz could overcome the loss, they wouldn’t have sent Matthews away.
There’s a message in just that itself.
— Geoff Mosher, a longtime Philadelphia sports reporter, is also a host on @975TheFanatic in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffMosherNFL
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