The rebirth and rejuvenation of Nelson Agholor

Many were quick to label Agholor a bust after two disappointing seasons to begin his career. Now in his third season, the former USC star is back and better than ever.


Expectations were sky-high for Nelson Agholor after the Eagles selected the former USC wideout with the 20th overall pick in the 2015 Draft. Agholor was explosive when playing for the Trojans, as he managed to catch every pass thrown his way. He was famous for his blazing speed, and he always managed to find his way to the endzone whether it be burning cornerbacks on a deep pass or making defenders miss on a punt return.

After three years of stardom at USC, Agholor was in for a rude awakening when he arrived in Philadelphia. Agholor had an underwhelming rookie season where he caught 23 passes on 44 targets for just 283 yards and one touchdown. While Agholor did not light up the stat sheet, there was still room for growth as he did show some potential and was forced to deal with an unstable quarterback situation.

Many expected Agholor to improve in his sophomore campaign. Rather than improving, the exact opposite happened. Agholor was truly awful in his second season. He caught just 36 of the 70 passes thrown his way and accumulated a minuscule 365 receiving yards and just two touchdowns, despite being a starting outside receiver for the Eagles and playing in 15 games. Even worse, Agholor had a severe case of the butterfingers and dropped many key passes thrown his way. In fact, Agholor played so dreadfully that he was a healthy scratch in the Eagles’ Week 12 match-up against the Green Bay Packers.

Finally, in 2017, everything changed. Agholor has begun to look like the top-notch receiver he was at USC. His butterfingers are no more and he has caught practically everything thrown his way. He is once again burning defenders with his speed and using his athletic abilities to catch tough passes.

Agholor had the best game of his career in Week 1 against the Redskins, as he caught six passes for 86 yards and a touchdown. While he did not light up the stat sheet in Week 2 against the Chiefs, Agholor’s lone reception was a key nine-yard touchdown pass with just seconds remaining in the game.

 

How did Agholor become good again and why did it take so long? Let's take a deep dive into Agholor's college and professional career to figure out why he was so dominant in college, what went wrong in his first two NFL seasons, and what he and the Eagles did to revive his career and turn him into a force on the field.

Collegiate success

Throughout his entire collegiate career, Agholor lined up in the slot on the vast majority of his snaps. Operating in the slot allowed Agholor to make the most out of his elite speed. Slot receivers are typically covered by a team's third cornerback, safety, or linebacker, so Agholor was not typically covered by an opposing team's top cornerback. This allowed Agholor to burn defenders, get open, and do lots of damage.

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This game against Arizona State shows the advantages of having a speed demon like Agholor play in the slot. Agholor uses his speed to out-run the defender and get open. He then catches the ball in the center of the field and continues to use his speed to make defenders miss. As a result, he is able to pick up lots of yards after the catch and move the ball far down the field.

Agholor also ran most of his routes towards the center of the field. This allowed him to use his speed to his advantage as he was able to get open far down the field with defenders several yards behind him, making him a dangerous deep threat.

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These two clips are perfect examples of great ways to utilize a speed demon like Agholor. If Agholor is running the correct type of route, especially when lined up in the slot, there is no question that he will be a defensive back's worst nightmare. He can easily create several yards of separation and make his way downfield and into the endzone.

Another way Agholor was utilized in college was through short passes and screen passes, where he would accumulate lots of yards after making the catch.

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These two clips are perfect examples of excellent utilization of Agholor's unique skill set. Agholor's top-tier speed and agility allows him to turn a short, insignificant pass into a nightmare for opposing teams. He is able to successfully turn a pass that is thrown just a few yards into a 30-plus yard gain.

Rookie and sophomore struggles

After years of stardom in Southern California, Agholor suffered a severe and significant regression after making the jump to the NFL. However, Agholor is not solely to blame for his struggles, as he was not utilized in the same ways he was in college. In his first two seasons, Agholor did not play in the slot. As a result, he was matched-up against the best cornerbacks in the NFL as the top outside receiver. He could no longer use his speed to his advantage, as guys like Richard Sherman and Josh Norman also had elite speed. Since he was covered by the league's top defensive backs, he genuinely struggled to get open and dropped many of the passes thrown his way.

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Both of these major dropped passes by Nelson Agholor reveal a similar pattern. In each of these instances, Agholor is lined up on the outside and is facing blanket coverage from the opposing team's top cornerback. All of these corners have elite speed, so Agholor is unable to out-run them and get open. Given the vast differences between these plays and Agholor's plays in college, it is not a surprise that Agholor struggled so much in his first two seasons.

Third time is the charm

Agholor's NFL career was truly on the line entering his third season in the league. Many fans clamored for the team to admit their mistake and cut their losses by releasing Agholor following his disastrous sophomore season. The team ignored the demands of the fans and kept him around, as it would have cost the team more to release him than it would to keep him. Before the season began, it looked all but certain that 2017 would be the former first rounder's last year in Philadelphia. However, that no longer appears to be the case.

Agholor made lots of headlines in training camp, as teammates, coaches, and reporters could not stop raving about Agholor and the vast improvements he made during the offseason. With new additions Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith manning the outside, Agholor was relegated to the bench until slot receiver Jordan Matthews suffered an injury. Now back in his natural and best position, Agholor experienced a resurgence and looked like a new man. He caught everything thrown his way and used his quickness to consistently beat defenders and make them miss. The Eagles loved what they saw from the new and improved Agholor so much that they traded Matthews to the Buffalo Bills and penciled in Agholor as their starting slot receiver. The move was deeply scrutinized by many NFL analysts, as Matthews was one of the league's top slot receivers and Agholor was still very unproven. Fast forward two weeks into the season, and it looks like those analysts were dead wrong and the Eagles' gamble has paid off tremendously.

Agholor's first play of the new season was this beautiful 58-yard bomb he caught from Carson Wentz and took all the way to the house for a touchdown. He was reminiscent of his college days, as he was lined up in the slot and used his speed to beat defenders badly and make the Redskins pay.

Here is Agholor using another one of his college tricks in the NFL. He makes an acrobatic catch on a short pass as he outruns the coverage. Only an ankle tackle stops him scoring.

Then there was that sensational late catch against the Chiefs that we saw earlier.

The revitalization of Nelson Agholor just goes to show that it is important to be patient with players who have lots of potential and it is essential to use players' strengths in order to maximize their impact. Agholor is achieving lots of success so far in his third season because the Eagles finally decided to play him in the slot, which allows him to get open and move the ball down the field using his elite speed and athletic ability. As a result, Agholor has gone from a historic draft bust to a player on the rise and a potential star in Philadelphia. Now that Agholor has finally found his niche in the Eagles' offense, here's to the success of the young Eagles' wideout, and hopefully he achieves the same level of success and stardom with the Eagles as he did with the USC Trojans. 

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Justin Boguslavsky

Columbia University student, NFL and NCAAF writer, die hard Philly sports fan #FlyEaglesFly

Hot takes are my specialty

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