Sizing up Eagles' receivers minus DeSean

Posted: June 18, 2014

IF THE EAGLES had been able to get even a third- or fourth-round draft pick for DeSean Jackson before the draft, the number of conspiracy theories as to why Chip Kelly dumped a guy who had just led his team in every pertinent receiving category wouldn't have been nearly as large.

Many of you might have even actually believed Kelly when he said before the draft that it was a "football decision" and had absolutely nothing to do with a gangsta on a grassy knoll.

But as I mentioned 7 weeks ago, Jackson's abrupt exit was indeed a football decision that had to do with two things: 1) his huge salary-cap number ($12.75 million); and 2) his itty-bitty size (5-9 1/2, 175 pounds).

There currently are 13 wide receivers on the Eagles' roster. Twelve are at least 5-11, including seven who are 6-2 or taller. Ten of the 13 weigh 200-plus pounds.

As Kelly is fond of saying, big people beat up little people.

Everybody, including the Eagles, is following the Seattle Seahawks' lead and getting big, physical corners who can play press coverage and jam receivers at the line.

Offenses are responding by stocking up on big, physical wideouts who can get off that press coverage.

"If you're a receiver, you've got to be able to deal with the bump-and-run and you've got to be able to catch the football," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said yesterday as the Eagles made their assistant coaches available to the media for the first time since last season. "Sometimes, it helps being a bigger receiver to fight through the physical nature of the bump-and-run."

Kelly has repeatedly mentioned how much man-to-man coverage the Eagles saw last season. While they finished second in the league in total offense and ninth in scoring, and while Jackson managed to elude press coverage enough to catch a career-high 82 passes for a career-high 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns, he failed to gain more than 60 receiving yards in five of the Eagles' last six games, and was effectively silenced in the playoffs by the Saints' bigger, stronger corner, Keenan Lewis, who held Jackson without a catch for nearly three quarters before leaving the game with a concussion. Jackson finished with three catches for 53 yards.

"We saw more of that [press coverage] than other people," Kelly said in March. "Having guys who can get open against man coverage is a key deal. That's the one thing we know as a group going in. One-on-one coverage is a big deal for us. It's a big deal in this league."

While he might not have been one of the league's biggest receivers, Jackson was one of the fastest. When he gets off the line, he's a nightmare to deal with. When he gets off the line.

It is the belief of his supporters that the Eagles are going to miss his speed and the impact it had on opposing defenses.

He had 25 catches of 20 yards or more last season, the second most in the league. His career yards-per-catch average (17.2) is the third highest in the league among active players.

Many feel the defensive attention he drew was a big reason for Riley Cooper's 47-catch, eight-touchdown success last season.

"I think the deep threats are guys who catch the ball over 20 yards," said wide-receivers coach Bob Bicknell. "Riley Cooper had a bunch of those [13]. I think Jeremy Maclin is going to have a bunch this year. Obviously other positions will have those.

"[Second-round pick] Jordan Matthews is a pretty fast guy. [Third-rounder] Josh Huff has had a lot of that kind of production. Brad Smith is really good with the ball in his hands. Arrelious Benn is a guy I would love to see with the ball in his hands if we can get him into games.

"I don't personally look at it and say, 'Gosh, we can't go deep [without Jackson]. I think Riley Cooper has some of the best ball judgment on deep balls as anybody."

The 6-3, 222-pound Cooper finished second in the league in yards per catch last season (17.8), behind only the Browns' Josh Gordon.

"He's a tough guy," Shurmur said. "And he can catch the football. As far as the deep ball, he's a baseball player, so he tracks the ball extremely well. And he's got size. He has the ability to go up over a defender to make a catch."

Said Bicknell: "In some ways, I'm not sure how much Riley saw himself as a starter in the National Football League [before last season]. He hadn't done that. I've talked to him this year about how good he thinks he can be. Any player has to gain that feel. He's going to get better and better with confidence."

The tentative plan heading into training camp is to use the 6-3, 212-pound Matthews in the slot with Cooper and the 6-foot, 200-pound Maclin, who is coming off a torn ACL, on the outside.

Matthews should be able to create size mismatches inside against smaller inside corners.

"His size has shown up in our training," Shurmur said of the rookie wideout. "He's made some plays. He's made some contested catches. He's done a good job of catching the ball and running with it. And even though we haven't been tackling, my sense is once he catches it and gets running, he'll be a difficult guy to tackle."

Bicknell and Jackson had a sideline shouting match in the Eagles' 48-30, Week 15 loss to the Vikings. Ironically, the receiver had his best game of the season that day, catching 10 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown.

Some have suggested that that confrontation contributed to Jackson's exit.

"All I can say is I never had a problem with DeSean Jackson," Bicknell said. "I enjoyed coaching him. I enjoyed the year I had with him. As a coach, you move on quickly. Once that decision [to release him] was made, I moved on. But I wish him nothing but the best. He did everything I asked him to do and I really enjoyed being around him."

And now Jackson is gone. And we'll find out soon enough whether Kelly is right about big people beating up little people, whether he made the right football decision or the wrong one. We'll find out soon enough whether the Eagles are a better team without DeSean Jackson than they were with him.

"We like the guys we've got," Shurmur said. "All receivers have strengths and weaknesses. But being able to deal with press coverage and catching the ball are two things we can do."


On Twitter: @Pdomo


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