After careful consideration this offseason, Eagles decide to part ways with DeSean Jackson. The team informed him of his release today.— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) March 28, 2014
It had been speculated for weeks that Jackson wasn't an ideal fit in Chip Kelly's offense, that the Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin signings were preludes to Jackson leaving and that the Eagles were shopping their playmaking receiver to any team willing to offer even a mid-round draft pick.
The rumors turned out to be true, as the Eagles released Jackson less than an hour after Eliot Shorr-Parks' article appeared on NJ.com detailing Jackson's possible involvement in gang-related activities. Jackson denied the reports of his gang involvement.
The Eagles will pay $6 million of Jackson's 2014 salary, although they reportedly could have saved this money had they made him a post-June 1 release.
So how can the Eagles possibly replace Jackson?
Electrifying playmakers of his ability don't grow on trees. Since being drafted into the NFL in 2008, Jackson has made three Pro Bowls. He's arguably the biggest home run hitter in the league.
Since entering the league in 2008, nobody has more receiving touchdowns of 30+ yards than DeSean Jackson (21).— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 28, 2014
He has displayed a propensity to take it to the house on any play at any time. Just ask the New York Giants.
Kelly did re-sign both Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, and the pair are the top two receivers on the current depth chart. Kelly also made a splash when he traded for running back Darren Sproles, a tremendous receiver out of the backfield with prior success as a return man. The offensive line returns intact, and quarterback Nick Foles will undergo his first offseason as the team's unquestioned starter. Is this enough for the Eagles to replace Jackson? If not, can it be done at all?
It won’t be an easy task, that’s for sure.
Jackson was a Pro Bowl receiver last year, catching 82 passes for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns. All of those numbers were his career bests. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Jackson posted the highest passer rating (124.4) of any receiver, and he even rated well as a blocker. Jackson was instrumental in opening up the offense for Riley Cooper to make plays, and the Eagles will surely miss a player of his skills.
It may take a year or two or even three to try to replace Jackson. It will be Kelly’s biggest challenge; in fact, his legacy may be tied to it, especially if he cannot overcome it. For now, here are a handful of possible ways the Eagles can try to replicate Jackson’s production in 2014.
*All Scouting Combine stats are from NFL.com. Season stats are from ProFootballReference.com and SportsReference.com.
1. Draft a 1st-Round Wide Receiver
It’s said to be the NFL’s deepest wide receiver draft in years, and that may be why Chip Kelly was so willing to let DeSean Jackson go for literally nothing.
The Philadelphia Eagles have the 22nd overall selection in the NFL draft, which means they won’t have a shot at either Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans. Their best bet would be one of the second-tier receivers like Brandin Cooks, Kelvin Benjamin, Marqise Lee, Odell Beckham or Allen Robinson. All of those could go in the first round and project to be No. 1 receivers in the National Football League.
Cooks seems to be the kind of guy Chip Kelly would like; he’s an explosive playmaker built in the mold of DeSean Jackson. Per Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com, Kelly is reportedly interested in Cooks, who has 4.33 speed and put up ridiculous numbers in college last year, totaling 128 catches for an NCAA-best 1,730 yards and 18 total touchdowns in 2013.
Benjamin and Robinson are bigger receivers who could complement Jeremy Maclin well. Benjamin checks in at 6’5” and over 240 pounds; his 4.61 speed is solid for a player of his size. He will likely be available at pick 22. Meanwhile, Robinson is similarly built to Evans in that he can win jump balls and come down with contested catches. Robinson may be a stretch at the 22nd overall pick, but he probably won’t still be available when Philly picks in the second round.
USC’s Lee is a mid-first-round prospect with superb skills in gaining yards after the catch. Lee dropped off in his junior season, but much of that may be related to Matt Barkley graduating college. He would be a fine fit for Kelly’s offense, which will need another receiver with Jeremy Maclin back on just a one-year deal.
None of those rookie receivers will come close to the 1,300-plus yards Jackson put up in ’13, but that’s because rookie receivers typically take some time to adjust to the NFL. In fact, since 2000, there have been just five rookies to accumulate 1,000 receiving yards. With what Kelly’s offense did for Jackson and Riley Cooper a year ago, there’s a chance a first-round receiver could reach that milestone for the Eagles in 2014.
2. Draft Mid-Round Wide Receiver to Develop
If this really is the deepest wide receiver draft ever, Chip Kelly may be wise to target defense in the first two rounds and a wide receiver in the third round.
Colorado’s Paul Richardson is the closest mid-round fit to DeSean Jackson; he’s an undersized receiver with world-class speed and a terrific ability to gain yards after the catch. As a junior at Colorado a year ago, Richardson posted nearly identical numbers (82 receptions, 1,343 yards, 10 touchdowns) to Jackson’s NFL numbers (82 receptions, 1,332 yards, nine touchdowns).
Richardson’s father (also named Paul) was a former NFL wide receiver, ironically for the Philadelphia Eagles. This Richardson posted a sub-4.4 time in the 40-yard dash and vertical jumped 38 inches. Those are numbers that suggest he will be a dynamic receiver with the right NFL team, and he could likely be obtained in the second round.
Another strong candidate would be Pittsburg State’s John Brown. Brown attended a smaller Division-II school, but he posted well enough at the NFL Scouting Combine to warrant a potential fifth-round selection. Brown is a comparable player to Indianapolis’ T.Y. Hilton, a receiver with a similar skill set who attended a small school as well.
Other potential receivers the Eagles could look at in the middle rounds would be Rutgers’ Brandon Coleman (6’6”, 220 pounds, 4.56 speed), South Carolina’s Bruce Ellington (5’11”, 197 pounds, 4.45 speed) or Oklahoma’s Jalen Saunders (5’9”, 165 pounds, 4.45 speed). The first is a bigger player who will have to make his mark by outmuscling receivers, while the latter two are speedy players that are built much like Jackson.
3. Increased High-Percentage Passes to Tight Ends and Running Backs
Maybe the Philadelphia Eagles won’t touch their wide receivers heading into 2014. They still have the makings of a strong offense.
Nick Foles is the Pro Bowl quarterback coming off a monster breakout season. LeSean McCoy is an All-Pro back at the peak of his game, and he can both run the football and catch passes. Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper are best suited as No. 2 and No. 3 receivers, so they will be a bit stretched as the No. 1 and No. 2 receivers.
But the tight ends, Zach Ertz and Brent Celek, can take a lot of the underneath routes. There’s McCoy, who ranks fourth among all running backs with 272 receptions since 2009, and he was eighth-best with an 88.1 completion percentage on throws his way last year (per PFF, subscription required).
In fact, since 2009, there are two running backs in the NFL to have totaled at least 250 receptions and 10 receiving touchdowns. Both currently play on the Eagles.
So while Foles may not replicate his insane passing statistics from last year, he should still be extremely formidable. His league-best 9.1 yards per attempt mark will likely drop, but his overall completion percentage could improve from last year’s 64.0 mark due to higher-percentage passing and an overall greater familiarity with the offense.
Per Pro Football Focus, Foles attempted the highest number of deep passes in the league, throwing it 20-plus yards in the air on 17.4 percent of his passes. He completed 25 of those 55 throws for 805 yards, 14 touchdowns, and just one interception, greatly contributing to his absurd 119.2 passer rating. He could fall more to the middle of the pack in deep throws next year, which would mean airing it out around 12 percent of the time.
But that’s why Kelly went out and got Sproles, a terrific pass-catching back on third downs. It’s why Maclin and Cooper were re-signed, and don’t forget that the Eagles return one of the NFL’s elite offensive lines, with every starter signed for a minimum of three more seasons.
Expect Kelly to have fun mixing up two and even three-tight end sets, as well as lining up Sproles and McCoy next to one another in the backfield.
4. Lead the NFL in Rushing Attempts
Last year, the Philadelphia Eagles were one of the NFL’s more run-heavy offenses. That brought out a career-best season for All-Pro running back LeSean McCoy, who led the NFL with 1,607 rushing yards and 2,146 yards from scrimmage. The offensive line rated three times as effective as any other team in run blocking, per Pro Football Focus.
There’s solid depth behind McCoy, with Bryce Brown, Chris Polk and Sproles pushing for touches. The Eagles may make it easier to withstand the loss of Jackson if they continue running the ball at such a clip.
The franchise finished fourth in the NFL with 500 rushing attempts last year, and they ranked first in yards per attempt. McCoy has never played a season in the league without DeSean Jackson; the loss of Jackson will allow opposing defenses to focus more heavily on McCoy, without having to play a deep safety to counter for Jackson’s speed.
Will it hurt McCoy? It may a little, but Foles passed the ball well enough in 2013 that defenses certainly can’t ignore them. He showed the ability to torch teams, doing so against the Oakland Raiders, Arizona Cardinals and Chicago Bears.
It should be a fine combination. Foles is an efficient passer, but the running game is as good as it gets. The Eagles rushed for 100 yards in 13 of their 16 regular-season games, and they topped 200 yards five times. There’s no reason to believe the team can’t duplicate that, especially with the offensive line all back and fully healthy.
And if the running game is effective once again, the Eagles could repeat as NFC East champions, even without Jackson on their side.