For the second straight year, the Philadelphia Eagles have lost a key member of their offense before the preseason has even started.
Last year, it was All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters, whose double Achilles tendon tear sidelined him for the entire campaign. This year, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin suffered an ACL tear in one of the first training camp practices, an injury that will force him out for all of 2013.
To say the Eagles will miss Maclin is an understatement.
The free-agent-to-be has been a pivotal part of the organization since being drafted in the first round back in 2009. He hasn’t yet pieced together the breakout campaign many believe he is capable of, but Maclin has still averaged 64 receptions, 863 yards and six touchdowns over the past four years. He was the team’s leading receiver in receptions, yards and touchdowns a year ago.
The Eagles have already said they will replace Maclin from within, as general manager Howie Roseman told CSNPhilly.com’s Reuben Frank. The Eagles didn’t spend any draft picks on receivers this past year, so it will have to be one of the veterans or a surprise undrafted free agent.
Here are the best ways the Eagles can recover from Maclin’s absence.
Chip Kelly or Roseman would never publicly admit that they will rely much more heavily on the run given Maclin’s injury. But it seems to make sense to do so.
Maclin has underachieved for a handful of seasons, but he’s still a pivotal piece of the offense. Many receivers put up their best performance in their contract season, and hopes were high that Maclin would do the same.
Fortunately, the Philadelphia Eagles have a top backfield in the league.
LeSean McCoy is a former All-Pro who can score from everywhere on the field. He’s still young and capable of handling a full workload. The 25-year-old can catch passes out of the backfield as well as handle the rushing duties.
There’s Bryce Brown, a seventh-round pick from 2012 who surprised when asked to start. Brown’s first two games (347 rushing yards, four touchdowns) offer a glimpse of the potential he has to dominate this league. Brown certainly struggled as the season went on, dealing with fumbles and an almost refusal to run between the tackles. But if he can continue his development as a runner, he’s a tremendous complement to McCoy.
Third running back Felix Jones is a former first-round pick who is still just 26 years old. Jones fell out of favor with the Dallas Cowboys, but he brings a 4.8 career yards-per-carry average. He’s never topped 200 carries in a single season, so he’s still fairly fresh. If he can provide production as another piece of the running game, the Eagles could lead the NFL in carries.
Kelly is already a big tight end guy, having drafted one and signed one in his first year as head coach. This puts three very capable receiving threats on the offense in Brent Celek, Zach Ertz and James Casey.
Celek has averaged 59 receptions for 744 yards and four touchdowns over the past four seasons, topping out with nearly 1,000 yards in 2009. He’s not the prototypical Kelly player, but he’s still a reliable receiver from the tight end position.
Ertz will be utilized as a weapon all over the field, lining up as a traditional tight end, a slot receiver, an H-back and a wide receiver. He has the physical tools to make an immediate impact, and Kelly’s offense is predicated upon quick precision-passing. Ertz should be a prime candidate to take up many of the pass attempts that would have gone to Maclin.
Casey is the final piece of the tight end trifecta (Clay Harbor likely won’t have a significant impact in 2013). He was one of the Kelly’s most coveted players, as Kelly snatched him in free agency from the Houston Texans. Casey’s versatility is his strength, and it’s reasonable to expect him to build upon his ’12 numbers (34 receptions, 330 yards and three touchdowns).
By replacing Maclin within, the Philadelphia Eagles will be counting on a Pro Bowl season from DeSean Jackson. Jackson signed a five-year, $51 million extension last offseason, but he can be released after the season at a low cap hit. That means he’s essentially entering a contract season, and one in which the Eagles will really need his speed and production.
Jackson totaled 1,156 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in 2009, then followed that up with 1,056 yards and six scores in ’10, leading the NFL in yards per receptions (22.5). Since then, Jackson hasn’t topped 1,000 yards, and he bottomed out a year ago with just 45 catches for 700 yards and two touchdowns.
Jackson can still beat safeties deep with his world-class speed, but his small frame leaves him susceptible to injuries. He can disappear for large stretches at a time, and the Eagles can’t have that with Maclin injured. Whoever is under center will need Jackson to step up and be the No. 1 receiver the Eagles are paying him to be, and that means somewhere around 1,200 yards and eight to 10 scores.
This is asking for a lot from Riley Cooper, who has never caught more than 23 passes in a single season. Then again, he’s always been buried on the depth chart behind Jackson, Maclin and Jason Avant. Ideally, Cooper will step his game up with Maclin lost for the season.
Cooper has excellent size (6’3”), and he did score more touchdowns in 2012 than any Eagles receiver except Maclin. Damaris Johnson and Arrelious Benn are best suited in the slot, which is why Cooper will play the outside receiver role opposite Jackson.
Expecting a Pro Bowl campaign is highly unrealistic, but a total of 600 to 700 yards and six touchdowns would be a solid output.
Counting on undrafted free agents to provide an impact is largely unfair. But the Philadelphia Eagles have to be hoping Boston College wideout Ifeanyi Momah emerges as the player many fans think he can become.
He hasn’t played in an official football game since September 2011, missing nearly a whole year due to an ACL injury. He followed that with a year spent out of football after unsuccessfully lobbying for a sixth year at Boston College.
His odds to make the official 53-man roster just rose with Maclin’s injury, although he still has a long way to go to come close to replacing Maclin’s production.