DeSean Jackson finally got what he wanted - a long term deal. Jackson was drafted in the second round in 2008 and played for peanuts, relatively speaking. This frustrated him to no end and affected his play in both the 2010 and 2011 seasons. The Eagles tried to work something out with him, but the two sides couldn't see eye to eye.
That all ended on Wednesday afternoon. The Eagles gave Jackson a five-year deal reportedly worth $51 million. The contract wasn't overloaded with guaranteed money. The overall figures are enough to make Jackson happy and well paid, but the structure of the contract is such that the Eagles can part ways with him if things don't work out. The very fact the Eagles have to be cautious with the structure of the contract should tell you that this isn't a normal long term commitment.
At his best, Jackson is a special player. As a rookie in 2008, Jackson provided instant impact. He was penciled in as Reggie Brown's backup right after the draft. Brown was absent from a spring passing camp that year and Jackson took his place as the starting Z-receiver. Jackson hasn't looked back since that weekend. He had 10 passes thrown his way in the season opener and Eagles fans could immediately see that the string of wide receiver failures was over. Jackson was an electric playmaker.
2009 was even better. Jackson had 1,156 receiving yards and averaged 19 yards per catch. He had nine touchdown receptions. He also had a 67-yard touchdown run. Jackson was on the verge of becoming an elite receiver.
Unfortunately things did not progress as hoped. Jackson posted good numbers in 2010. He averaged 22.5 yards per reception, which is mind-blowing, but had only 47 catches and six touchdowns. He also began to make a lot of "business decisions". This is an old Deion Sanders term for when a star player goes down or out of bounds to avoid contact. It became clear that Jackson was avoiding hits at a certain point. With no big contract and no big signing bonus locked up, why risk it?
Since Jackson is only about 170 pounds there is an argument that he should avoid hits. I certainly want him to be smart about when to take chances with his body. Don't fight for every single yard if it means risking shots that could injure you and take you off the field. Be smart. Jackson was taking this mentality too far. He was choosing to avoid contact in situations where he should have been fighting for every yard. When a game is on the line, you do what it takes to move the chains or get in the end zone. Teammates were bothered by Jackson's tactics at times.
Michael Vick gets along very well with Jackson and the hope was that Vick would smooth things over. The 2011 season started well and Jackson came up big in the season opener. As the season progressed, he started to show signs of the 2010 mentality. Jackson was really bothered by his lack of a new contract and that greatly affected his play. There were a pair of low points. Jackson was benched for the Arizona game when he allegedly had an alarm clock malfunction that caused him to miss a meeting. After that, Jackson was benched in the fourth quarter of a loss to the New England Patriots due to less than adequate effort.
The good news is that Jackson bounced back after hitting rock bottom. His teammates weren't thrilled with him, but never gave up on Jackson. Neither did the coaching staff or front office. Jackson played better down the stretch and it appeared that there was hope for his future in Philly. The Eagles placed the franchise tag on Jackson and he handled that well. He never complained and in fact seemed to take some pride in being named the franchise player.
The Eagles quietly worked with Jackson and agent Drew Rosenhaus on an extension and that deal got done on Wednesday. The Eagles are betting that Jackson has turned the corner and will earn the big contract. If he can build on the promise he showed a couple of years ago, Jackson can become a dynamic force. The question is how he'll react to becoming a wealthy man. Some fans may scoff at that comment, but Jackson earned less than $3.1 million in his first contract. On Thursday he will get a bonus check that is much bigger than what he earned over the course of four years. That is a tough situation for many young athletes.
We constantly hear stories today about athletes who earned into the tens or even hundreds of millions, but are now broke. These guys make the mistake of assuming the money will always come in and they don't know how to say no to anything. They buy, spend, and waste money at a frightening rate. There are rumors that Jackson has had financial difficulties to this point. So how will he react to his new found wealth?
Some players get soft when they get paid. They lose their edge in terms of working out and doing every little thing it takes to be special. Other players are so driven and competitive that the money goes to the bank and doesn't affect them at all. Heck, if anything, they feel compelled to show they were worth the money. What will Jackson do? That is the $51 million question.
Jackson showed signs of maturity late last season. He easily could have pouted and complained in the press about teammates, coaches, and the struggles of the Eagles. Jackson never really did this. Reporters tried to get inflammatory comments from him, but Jackson stayed positive and on message. He said the right things. We've seen plenty of other players who would not have handled this well. Keyshawn Johnson had a famous falling out with John Gruden that led to him being deactivated and sent home for the rest of the 2003 season. Just last year Santonio Holmes was a major problem in the Jets locker room and even huddle. He criticized his teammates and defied his coaches. Of course, Eagles fans can just think back to 2005 and T.O.
Jackson was headed in the wrong direction late last year, but snapped out of it. I don't know if it was Andy Reid, his agent, Vick, some family member, or Dr. Phil, but someone obviously got through to Jackson. They got him to play hard and put aside any contract or personal issues. Let Sundays be about football and that's it. Jackson had two touchdown catches in the first 12 games. He had two in the last four. The catches covered 34 and 62 yards, his longest scores of the season. The 62-yarder was his longest reception of the entire year. Jackson's good finish to the season greatly influenced the Eagles decision to commit to him long term.
What do the Eagles need from Jackson? He must improve his use of the middle of the field. In the last two years Jackson headed for the sideline 95 percent of the time. He had no interest in going to the middle. That's where traffic is and the big hitters are. While Jackson is smart to go wide most of the time, you have to use the middle as well. If you make one defender miss in the middle, you can have some serious room to run. Jackson has great speed and loves to get vertical. He can also use that horizontally, moving across the field. If you can get across, then turn up the field and you have the potential for a big play. Simply put, Jackson must make defenders cover the whole field when he has the ball. In the last two seasons, they basically knew to cover between the hashmarks and the sideline. Shrinking the field like that makes it easy on the defense. Don't help those guys out.
Jackson also must cut down on his drops and mental mistakes. He has good hands. The problem is that you could see he was distracted in the last two years. Those distractions should now be gone. He must eliminate the drops. He's too good to be struggling with some easy catches.
It will be interesting to see how Jackson is used as a punt returner. I think the Eagles will add a return specialist this off-season. Jackson is so talented that he could remain the punt returner or he could simply be used there in some situations. Jackson was a dynamic returner in 2008 and 2009. He had 10 returns of more than 20 yards and went for three touchdowns in that time. Things have changed a bit since then. The Eagles got so worried with Jackson simply catching the punt cleanly that they played Chad Hall at times in the last couple of years. Jackson had three fumbles on only 37 returns. He also developed the terrible habit of running backward. He averaged just 6.7 yards per return in 2011. Heck, think about the winning return vs the Giants. Jackson muffed the punt, then got control of it, bounced around and then exploded upfield. All the dancing, bouncing around, and hesitation isn't good. That stuff needs to go away.
I went back and re-read some of my draft notes on Jackson. I noted that he was small, but tough. He could take a big hit and keep going. Back then Jackson had a bit of a chip on his shoulder, but in a good way. That carried over to the NFL and helped him have such good success early on. At some point the chip went from a little guy trying to prove himself to a guy that felt significantly disrespected because he hadn't been paid the big money he wanted. Now that is gone. It is going to be really interesting to see how Jackson reacts to his contract and big money. The Eagles are sure hoping it brings out the best in him. If Jackson can get back to his previous level of play, NFL cornerbacks are going to have a long, long season ahead of them.