Shocking news broke in the NFL on Friday. The Philadelphia Eagles cut Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson, via Josh Katzowitz of CBS Sports. The team had been shopping him around to potential trade partners but decided to cut the receiver due to Jackson’s behavior away from the football field.
Immediately, rumors started to fly about Jackson’s eventual destination. Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio reported that the San Francisco 49ers were one of the teams interested in acquiring the troubled receiver. He had earlier reported that the team was interested in trading for Jackson, though general manager Trent Baalke denied that any discussions had taken place.
Part of the reason why the 49ers may not have been too interested in a trade was financial. On his old contract, Jackson was scheduled to make a base salary of $10.5 million. It would have been extraordinarily difficult for the 49ers to squeeze Jackson in under the salary cap.
Now, however, Jackson’s a free agent. Might the 49ers take a run at him?
From a pure on-the-field standpoint, the interest in Jackson is obvious. Jackson’s a three-time Pro Bowler, coming off of the biggest season of his career while still in his prime. Players of that caliber don’t pop up on the free-agent market that often.
Jackson’s speed would offer a dimension that neither Michael Crabtree nor Anquan Boldin give the team. Last season, Jackson averaged 16.2 yards per reception. Boldin led the 49ers at only 13.9 yards per catch. Jackson caught 16 of the 33 passes intended for him more than 20 yards down the field—only Eric Decker had a better catch rate than that. The 49ers didn’t even have a player with 20 targets that deep down the field.
Of course, Jackson considers himself one of the top receivers in football, and he wants to be paid appropriately. I’m not so sure that’s the truth—Jackson didn’t make the Pro Bowl in either 2011 or 2012, falling under 1,000 yards receiving in both seasons. His 2012 season was particularly bad, where he ended up with only 700 yards receiving.
The 49ers would be likely to be outbid by some more desperate teams. The Carolina Panthers, for instance, have a starting receiving corps of Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood and Tavarres King. They might be willing to back up the Brinks truck to get Jackson on their team.
Of course, Jackson is more than a collection of numbers and on-field talents. His off-field concerns should be more than enough to frighten the 49ers away.
Teams simply don’t release players of Jackson’s caliber for no reason. The Eagles weren’t in a particularly bad salary-cap situation, so it’s not purely a financial move, either. The team had serious concerns about Jackson’s off-field problems.
There are reports of Jackson’s continued association with gang members. Eliot Shorr-Parks and A.J. Perez of NJ.com reported that Jackson has connections with the Crips gang in Los Angeles. They report that one LAPD detective believes Jackson has flashed gang signs during NFL games.
Jackson has denied being a member of a gang, and it’s important to note that Jackson is not charged with a crime. It’s all speculation and innuendo.
More solid reports indicate that Jackson was cutting team meetings and had a poor relationship with head coach Chip Kelly. Whatever the truth of the situation is, the Eagles had to have been fed up with Jackson to even consider cutting the productive receiver.
The potential warning signs implicit in Philadelphia’s move, combined with their tight salary-cap situation, likely means the 49ers won’t sign Jackson. It’d be a fairly large gamble on their part. It would push contract negotiations with Colin Kaepernick back as well as potentially bringing an off-field distraction into the locker room.
Baalke has expressed issues in the past with free-agent signings affecting the chemistry of the team’s locker room, via Matthew Barrows of The Sacramento Bee:
There’s a lot of thought that goes into every decision. One key thing we focus on is, ‘What is this decision going to do to our locker room?’ That’s a big part of the decision-making process. We spend a lot of time looking at that, talking through it, thinking about it and making sure that the move we make isn’t counterproductive to winning. Because that’s the ultimate goal—to win.
Jackson’s release could still aid the 49ers, however.
The Eagles may not be in the market for a first-round receiver in the draft, due to re-signing Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper. Whatever team ends up with Jackson will likely also be out of the first-round receiver sweepstakes.
That could push a player down to the 49ers at No. 30 who might not have been available previously. Perhaps Odell Beckham of LSU, Marqise Lee of USC or Brandin Cooks of Oregon State falls further than he otherwise would have. A highly drafted rookie like that would be a better answer to San Francisco’s receiving issues than signing Jackson.