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After a more-than-rocky start, the wide receiver spent an off-season getting his head together then returned to the field ready to conquer. This has been his comeback year – and what a year it’s been.

The voice boomed out at the end of a press conference held by head coach Doug Pederson the day after the Eagles lost in Seattle in early December. Now in Los Angeles in a makeshift conference room dressed up with a podium and a microphone, the veteran radio play-by-play announcer Merrill Reese sat up on the edge of his chair.

“Doug, from last year to this year,” Reese said, “is Nelson your most dramatically improved player?”

Nelson, in this case, was wide receiver Nelson Agholor, a first-round draft pick in 2015 who has been one of the most productive players for the Eagles offense this season after a forgettable first two years in the NFL. When he limped through his rookie season after suffering a high ankle sprain, Agholor was graded by Pro Football Focus – an analytics-based website viewed by many as a standard for the unbiased rating of players – as the worst receiver in the league.

And right before his second season, Agholor was accused of sexual assault at a Philadelphia gentleman’s club (he was not charged). Then his on-field performance was so poor that Pederson decided to bench Agholor and let him “breathe,” because, at the time, Agholor had trouble with the simple things in the game – lining up properly and catching the football consistently.

But in Los Angeles in early December, a day after a game in which Agholor caught seven passes for 141 yards, Pederson didn’t hesitate to answer Reese’s question. Most improved player? It’s Agholor, by a mile.

“Yeah, I do agree with that. He had a great game last night,” Pederson said. “The way he’s prepared himself in the off-season, to OTAs [Organized Team Activities] in the spring and all the way through camp, he definitely would get my vote for most improved, yes.”

The story of Agholor, the rebirth of his football career, if you will, is a fascinating one. In three seasons, comments about Agholor have gone from: “most-ready receiver in the 2015 NFL draft,” by draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., to “famous for his terrible drops. He finds ways to get open and has the speed to be a threat, but he simply loses focus and lets his team down at the worst times possible,” from FoxSports.com in June 2017.

“Nelson is someone I trust because he works so hard, cares so much and has the kind of ability you want in a receiver,” quarterback Carson Wentz says. “If I throw it his way, I know he’s going to catch it and make a big play.”

It seems so easy as Agholor races his way to one big play after another in this unexpectedly successful Eagles season, but it wasn’t that way at all in 2015-2016 for a player who caught 179 passes and scored 20 touchdowns in 40 games at the University of Southern California. An offseason of self-reflection and renewed dedication to the game changed Agholor’s professional life. Without stepping away from the game, who knows where Agholor would be now?

There were certainly no guarantees for Agholor after his two poor seasons.

“You know, I had a chance to get away and just think about football and how much I love the game,” Agholor says. “I was putting too much pressure on myself. I was trying to make every play, and when it didn’t happen, I let it eat at me. So I had a chance in the offseason to just relax. I knew I had everything in front of me in my career. I can’t be perfect. I realize that now.”

“I really appreciate having the opportunity to come back and earn my role on the team again. You know that at this level, if you aren’t producing, you aren’t going to be around. I changed my diet and cut out the junk food, and I got into the best shape of my life in the off-season. I came to the workouts in the spring, and I just wanted to have fun. I learned to focus on the moment and not dwell on the past. I’m just trying to stack one good day on top of another. When you do that, you find out that you end up where you want to be.”

It’s helped that the Eagles showed so much faith in Agholor when they traded their leading receiver from the previous three seasons, Jordan Matthews, to Buffalo, and then moved Agholor from an outside receiver position to the slot, where he lines up closer to the quarterback and primarily runs routes in the middle of the field. The ball gets to the slot receiver fast, and the action in the short-yardage area demands quicker reaction and fast feet, and Agholor has been brilliant. He’s too quick for most inside cornerbacks, and he’s able to gain a step should the Eagles ask him to get down the field and make big plays.

Through 13 games, Agholor ranked second in the NFL with an 18.8-yards-per-catch average on third-down receptions, and his seven touchdowns tied for fourth in the league. He had already achieved career highs with 48 receptions for 663 yards and seven TDs. For an offense with a spread-the-wealth approach, Agholor has been a go-to weapon, just like they all said he would be prior to the 2015 draft.

It just took three years for Agholor to get his groove on.

“I’ve always felt that Nelson had all the skills and all the tools to be a successful receiver in this league. The problem was Nelson. Nelson got in the way of Nelson. It was too much in his head,” says Mike Quick, a five-time Pro Bowl receiver with the Eagles and now the team’s radio analyst for the last 21 seasons.

“This game is challenging at every level,” Agholor says. “If you think you can come into this league and just do what you’ve been doing, it doesn’t work that way. I’m still learning. I have to trust the gifts I’ve been given and keep working as hard as I can every day.”

“Any success I’m having, I have to let that go, just like I had to learn to let go when I wasn’t playing the way I knew I could. Maybe this sounds strange, but you have to keep reminding yourself you’re here because you love the game.”

As the Eagles prepare for the playoffs, minus superstar quarterback Wentz, Agholor is a focal point of the passing game. He’s quick in the slot, devastating after the catch and secure catching the football.

What a difference, then, a year makes.

But it starts up here,” Agholor says, pointing to his head. “You have to truly believe in what you’re doing. You have to build up the confidence, and that takes a lot of work. I’m still putting it in the work, and I’m seeing the results.”

 

January 2018
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