Two weeks ago, the Philadelphia Eagles thought they had one of the better groups of wide receivers in the National Football League.
DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin comprised a top duo capable of each producing 1,000 receiving yards, while Jason Avant has been a model of consistency from the slot position. Arrelious Benn, Riley Cooper, and Damaris Johnson provided almost an overhaul of players fighting for spots on the roster.
Now, the cupboard is all but bare.
Maclin suffered a season-ending ACL injury, and he was later joined by Benn. In between, a video surfaced of Cooper displaying racist behavior at a concert—one that questioned his status with the team.
The Eagles have maintained that they are keeping Cooper, but he’s not much more than another Hank Baskett. Avant is a slid slot receiver, although he lacks the speed to do much else but catch short slant and curl routes. Replacing Maclin and Benn will be difficult, and it leaves a big task at the hands of undrafted free agents like Ifeanyi Momah and Russell Shepard.
Shepard has been arguably the star of Eagles camp so far (per CSNPhilly's Reuben Frank), and he will assuredly see time even on the outside. Johnson is a camp favorite, and Kelly will love utilizing him in multiple roles on offense given his quickness. And Momah could surprise as a big man who checks in at 6’7”, although it’s asking a lot to have such high expectations for three receivers that have played very little—or haven’t played at all—at this level.
The injuries ultimately place extreme pressure on DeSean Jackson, who has underwhelmed in consecutive seasons.
A two-time Pro Bowler, Jackson has played like a shell of the explosive playmaker that reeled in 50- and 60-yard touchdowns at will in 2009 and 2010. That didn't stop the Eagles from extending him last season, but he failed to produce above-mediocre No. 2 receiver numbers.
Jackson is vital to the offense in that he forces the opposing safeties to play deep in coverage. In turn, that should open up underneath routes for tight ends Brent Celek, Zach Ertz and James Casey.
There were too many times last season (and 2011) when it seemed Jackson was performing on autopilot.
He made some big catches but far too frequently; he went from a big catch in the first quarter to late in the third quarter without playing a role in the passing game. That’s not acceptable for a wide receiver with Jackson’s talent, or one earning $9 million against the cap in 2013.
Jackson’s contract pays him a $10.25 million base salary in 2014, plus a $2.25 million bonus, all of which counts as $12.5 million against the cap. That’s a ridiculous amount to pay a one-trick pony who rarely goes across the middle. The Eagles can conceivably get out of that contract as early as next offseason at just a $6 million cap penalty, per Eagles Cap.
If Jackson underachieves again and the Eagles look to lock up Jeremy Maclin on a one-year, prove-it deal (hoping to turn that into a long-term extension), Coach Kelly could easily choose to part ways with No. 10.
That’s why Jackson’s ’13 performance is so important. The Eagles will likely miss the playoffs regardless of how well Jackson plays, but players are paid $51 million to step up in situations like this.