The biggest question facing the Eagles right now is what to do with DeSean Jackson. Do you re-sign him, tag him, tag and trade him, or just let him walk? This isn't a simple question. There are pros and cons to each choice. I'm willing to bet there's a lot of debate going on inside the NovaCare Complex on what to do. Eagles fans are split. The media is split. It is hard to imagine the front office and coaching staff are all on the same page. I know that I've had a tough time making up my mind. Jackson is a polarizing player.
Let's go back to the media for a second. This week a pair of the most respected Eagles writers essentially had a debate on what to do with Jackson. No, this wasn't FakeWIPCaller and Mark Eckel. I'm talking about Paul Domowitch and Reuben Frank. Domowitch wrote a column that called for the Eagles to let Jackson go. Frank wrote a column saying that the Eagles must find a way to re-sign Jackson. Domowitch was too casual when talking about Jackson's importance. Frank made a lot of valid points in his argument, but glossed over the concerns that make giving Jackson a mega-deal a risky move.
No one disputes the fact that Jackson is a playmaker. He is one of the fastest players in the NFL. He does things that scare defensive coordinators and defensive backs. Gameplans focus on Jackson. You cannot cover him one-on-one too much or you risk getting burned for a huge play. Jackson has an impact on a game by simply setting foot on the field. The flip side of that is that Jackson doesn't always deliver the results that a player with his potential should. Mike Wallace is the player Jackson should have become. Victor Cruz put up the kind of numbers in 2011 that Eagles fans have wanted to see from Jackson. DeSean's impact comes more from potential than production. Simply put, his bark is worse than his bite.
Jackson has 21 touchdown catches in four years. Cruz has almost half of that (9) in one year. Laurent Robinson had 11 touchdowns in 2011 (side note - how many people know who he is?). Vincent Jackson has 21 touchdown passes in his last 36 games. He could go 24 straight games without a score and get to the point where Jackson is now. Touchdowns aren't the only way to judge a receiver, but that is a hugely important way. When you think of great receivers, you think of touchdowns.
In his piece, Frank focuses on 60-yard touchdowns. He points out how dynamic Jackson is when you look at those numbers. The problem is that long plays like that are fool's gold, especially Jackson's. It would be one thing if Jackson was catching short to intermediate passes and then running for huge gains. That's generally not the case. He did have a 91-yard score against Dallas like that, but most of his big plays come down the field. Those are low percentage plays. That has nothing to do with Jackson or the Eagles quarterbacks. You simply aren't as likely to complete a pass 30 yards down the field as you are 10 to 15 yards down the field. It almost seems to me that focusing on 60-yard touchdowns is like arguing for a baseball player based on 500-foot home runs. Both are dramatic ways to score that do affect opponents mentally/emotionally, but neither is a reliable method to count on as part of a winning formula.
I've been disappointed with Jackson's run after catch (RAC) ability. He has blazing speed so if he gets behind the defense that play is going for a touchdown. Really good RAC receivers have the ability to run through traffic and get behind the defense with the ball in their hands. Jerry Rice was freakishly good at this. Jackson is average...or worse. He simply won't work the middle of the field if he's got a choice. Jackson will run for the sideline, despite the fact that is going to kill the play. The sideline never misses a tackle. Defenders do. Just ask Jarrad Page.
This part of the debate is complex. Jackson has wanted a big contract for the last couple of years. Since he didn't have that money, he has made what players call "business decisions". This is when a player goes down or gets out of bounds to avoid contact, and thus avoid injury. There is no question that Jackson has done this. The question is whether this will change when he gets a big contract. His supporters say "yes", but I'm not so sure. Money tends to make people soft. When I got my first paycheck from Burger King back in the day, I went from Charles Bronson tough to Charles Grodin soft. That $110 led me to a life of luxury (fish sticks for everyone!) and I haven't looked back since.
Is DeSean going to start throwing his body around in traffic when you give him an $8M to $10M signing bonus? Is that going to bring out the tough side in him? It is possible, but I don't see it as the more likely outcome. I do want to stress here that I'm not calling for Jackson to turn into Anquan Boldin and start bowling people over. That's not his game and he doesn't have the build for it. Jackson is a speed receiver. He is at his best in space. That said, he has avoided contact for two years and that is not something that can continue. If you pay him big bucks, he has to work the middle of the field better than he has. Hits are part of the game. Study Torry Holt. That guy was very good over the middle, but knew how to go down quickly to avoid hits. DeSean is overly protective at this point. That limits his game and hurts the offense.
Andy Reid does seem to be Jackson's biggest supporter. Reid love's Jackson's big play ability. The reason that a deal hasn't gotten done is value. Jackson and agent Drew Rosenhaus think he is one of the elite receivers in the NFL. Reid and the Eagles disagree and don't want to pay that kind of salary. They do want to give him good money. It just isn't good enough at this point.
The Scouting Combine gets underway this week and Rosenhaus will be in Indy. So will Reid, Howie Roseman, and the rest of the Eagles personnel department. The two sides are going to meet up at some point and discuss the situation. The key here is to see if either side has changed their mind.
The Eagles have gotten a better feel for the draft, which will affect their thinking (good receiver class). The Eagles and Rosenhaus have both studied the free agent landscape. It sounds like Stevie Johnson and Vincent Jackson will hit the market. It seems like Marques Colston will as well. Dwayne Bowe is probably going to get the franchise tag. Mike Wallace will be on the market as a restricted free agent. If Rosenhaus and Jackson lower their price a bit, a deal could get done. If the Eagles have decided that Jackson is worth more than their previous offers, a deal could get done. One side has to budge. Who? The Eagles are pretty stubborn with negotiations and so is Rosenhaus.
I would not break the bank for Jackson. In order to pay big money to a receiver, I would focus on three specific situations: third downs, the red zone, and the fourth quarter. Jackson does not excel in any of those situations. There is no questioning his speed and playmaking ability, but am I going to play huge bucks to a guy unless I want the ball going to him with the game on the line? No way. Jackson is small and has inconsistent hands. He's not my primary target on fourth and five late in a close game. Unfortunately, that's the guy Jackson wants to be paid like.
If we learned anything from the recent playoffs, it is that bigger, more physical receivers were the guys who delivered. Hakeem Nicks put up better numbers than Victor Cruz in the postseason. Demaryius Thomas was big for Denver, literally and figuratively. Anquan Boldin was the key guy for the Ravens. Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson were monsters. Vernon Davis was great for the Niners.
On the other hand, Wes Welker didn't have more than 60 yards in any game and had a huge drop in the Super Bowl. Lee Evans had a key drop in the AFC title game. Kyle Williams muffed two punts that killed the Niners. Mike Wallace had just three catches for 26 yards in the Steelers loss to Denver. Speed and quickness were negated. Size and strength ruled the day.
So what is going to happen? A couple of weeks back Jeff McLane reported that the franchise tag would be placed on Jackson. McLane is the beat writer who the Eagles seem to leak reports to, for various reasons. This past Monday teams were able to use the tag, but the Eagles haven't done that yet. The two sides will surely meet at the Combine. As recently as last week it seemed like DeSean was done as an Eagle. Now I'm not so certain. This story changes directions more than DeSean does when trying to return a punt. Let's just hope the story doesn't go backwards and then fumble the ball away. Zing!
Dave Spadaro has said some things on Twitter that make me wonder if the ice hasn't thawed a bit between the Eagles and Jackson/Rosenhaus. Maybe there is a potential deal on the horizon. Agents do a lot of talking at this time of the year to try and get a feel for the market for their players. I think the market for Jackson would tend to be soft, but that's just a guess. And it only takes one team to like you. This is an important situation for the Eagles to solve. What they do with Jackson will have major impact on what they do in free agency and the draft.