Ask the question of who the best receivers in the NFL are and you're in for an interesting discussion, or possibly a lengthy argument. I personally choose Calvin Johnson for the top spot, but you can also make a great case for Andre Johnson. You will get some votes for Larry Fitzgerald. Beyond the big three, things get complicated.
I would have Roddy White and Greg Jennings round out the top five. Greg Cosell from NFL Films thinks Santonio Holmes is a top five receiver. Some people might argue for Brandon Marshall. He can be dominant at times. Wes Welker remains the top slot receiver in the league and might have some people who think he should be listed high overall.
There are a handful of stud receivers from the NFC East who could be in the mix. Santana Moss from the Skins is starting to age, but continues to put up huge numbers. Hakeem Nicks is a young guy on the rise. He looks like a great player. Cowboys star Miles Austin can be streaky, but has a lot of talent and posts good numbers. Finally, we have Eagles playmaker DeSean Jackson. He is one of the most dynamic players in the whole league. How does he compare to the others and where does he fit in?
I don't think Jackson is worthy of a spot in the top five receivers. I do think he belongs in the group from 6 to 10. For now, let's talk about the top five. I think the big three are safe without a discussion. Those guys are in a league of their own. The situation is less clear when you compare Jackson, White, and Jennings. A strong case can be made for each player.
White is a complete receiver. Imagine someone that has the size and physicality of Jason Avant and the speed of Jeremy Maclin. That's White. He's tough and durable. White has never missed an NFL game in his career. He can be a workhorse receiver. Last season he caught 115 passes. The previous three years he caught at least 83 passes. White still delivers big plays. He has more career catches of 40 or more yards than Fitzgerald. White is also a good red zone threat. He's had consecutive years with 10 or more touchdown receptions. He's got a total of 34 touchdown catches over the last four years.
Jennings has emerged into a pretty special receiver himself. He's not as big or physical as White, but is ahead of Jackson in both areas. Jennings has good durability for a receiver with a medium build. He hasn't missed a game in three years. Jennings is a big play receiver (he averages 16.2 yards per catch for his career), but can also be a possession receiver. He averages 75 catches a season over the last three years. He has 25 touchdowns catches in that span. Jennings is a clutch player. He made some big plays for the Packers enroute to winning the Super Bowl last year. Jennings isn't just going deep. He runs crisp routes and knows how to get open. He seems to understand the importance of being a complete receiver. You must catch the short throws in order to keep the defense honest and set up the big plays.
The case for Jackson is more complicated. He can't compete on just numbers. Jackson caught just 47 passes last year. Jennings had more catches for first downs than that (52). White averaged 2.45 catches to every one by Jackson last year. Jackson has 17 touchdowns in three years. Jennings had 12 last year and White had 10. Those guys are much better red zone threats. Jackson missed two-and-a-half games last year during the season and then missed a lot of the playoff loss to Green Bay. He's not nearly as durable as the other two.
Jackson has the advantage in a couple of areas. He is absolutely the most dangerous of the three with the ball in his hands. Defenses go to panic mode when Jackson has the ball. The Eagles get him the ball as a runner to help take advantage of his RAC skills. Jackson has 337 career rushing yards. White and Jennings have combined for 18.
Jackson also offers the most impact on plays where he doesn't touch the ball. He is a player that the defense must account for on every snap. He doesn't get a lot of touches, but he delivers impact plays when the ball does come his way. Of his 47 catches last season, eight of them went for 40 or more yards. White and Jennings combined for nine such plays on 191 receptions. They move the chains. Jackson changes the game. He also had a 31-yard touchdown run.
Because he is such a dynamic playmaker, defenses have to build coverages around Jackson. They must keep a safety deep to contain him. Or maybe the defense will bracket him in coverage. This is when two players cover one. The defense has one cover guy under the receiver and one over. That makes it hard for the quarterback to get him the ball and also seriously negates the potential for big plays. Some teams want to get physical defenders on Jackson and will change up the way they do things. They want a big defensive back jamming Jackson so he can't get a clean release and build up a head of steam while running his route.
There is no stat that I know of that can point out the kind of impact Jackson has on a game just by lining up on a given play. That impact is real, but trying to quantify it is very hard, if not impossible. I do not count Jackson's ability as a punt returner. There is no question that is a huge part of his game, but I think this comparison has to be done on what each player brings to the table as a wide receiver.
Jackson can become one of the top five receivers in the league. He doesn't need 100 catches to do that, but he must become more consistent. The biggest area that needs improvement is catching short and intermediate passes. There are times when Jackson plucks the ball with ease and looks like a tough guy. We also saw some times last year when Jackson wasn't so tough. He went down before any contact. He moved away from contact, but not in a way to get more yards. A few of his teammates weren't so keen on some of this.
We all know that smaller players must protect themselves. I don't think anyone expects Jackson be be Anquan Boldin, part two. He does have to get tougher. You can't be just a deep threat and remain an elite receiver. You must make the short catches that move the chains.
I think Jackson's contract status was an issue at times last year. He was looking for a mega-deal. There were a few plays when he could have fought to catch a pass or could have battled for more yards, but didn't. I think the fact that Jackson is still working on his rookie deal affected him. I'm not saying he isn't tough. I'm saying he chose not to be. Deion Sanders refers to situations like this as "business decisions". Don't risk getting blown up if you don't have to and definitely don't be fearless when you are waiting for a big payday. I might very well make the same choices myself were I in that situation. Still, I think it hurts your ranking among the top receivers.
I also wonder if Jackson will ever develop into much of a red zone threat. That is an area of the field where speed and explosion aren't as important as size and strength. Jackson has to learn how to play down there. He will never out-muscle defenders to get open, but he can perfect the art of hiding in the open. It will also help if he's able to build chemistry with Mike Vick. You see the way that Peyton Manning had such a great feel for Marvin Harrison and then Reggie Wayne. They were almost always on the same page and knew how to execute precisely in the red zone. Harrison wasn't huge, but caught a lot of short touchdowns because he spent so much time developing his red zone skills.
Jackson has the potential to go from elite playmaker to great receiver. He's now entering his fourth year in the league and this is when we should start to see a more polished product. If he's willing to pay the price, the sky is the limit for Jackson. Hopefully the Eagles will pay him and then Jackson can focus solely on becoming the best receiver he possibly can. It is pretty scary when you think that as good as he is, there is still room for him to get better.