Offseason Primer: Eagles Wide Receivers

In the next couple of weeks, we’ll take a position-by-position, player-by-player look at the Eagles’ roster. Today, we start with wide receivers.

YEAR IN REVIEW

DeSean Jackson – It’s amazing to me how polarizing Jackson has become among the fan base. We can’t write about the Eagles’ speedy receiver in this space without preparing for a heated debate in the comments section.

Here are the numbers from 2012: 45 catches, 700 yards, two touchdowns. On the surface, those are unimpressive. But we need to dig a little deeper. Jackson’s production is based on getting behind the defense and keying the vertical passing game. That becomes difficult when you have an offensive line that can’t pass-protect and quarterbacks who struggle to get the ball downfield.

If you want visual proof, check out the All-22 breakdowns from the season.

If you want numbers, here they are. Nick Foles ranked 24th in deep-ball accuracy, per Pro Football Focus. Just 35.7 percent of his passes that traveled 20+ yards were on-target. Michael Vick was even worse, ranking 26th at 35 percent.

Still, in nine games with Vick at QB, Jackson averaged 76.2 yards per game. That translates to a 1,219-yard season over 16 games. Shaky hands had been an issue for him in the past, but Jackson didn’t drop a single catchable ball in 2012, according to STATS.com.

He missed the final five games after suffering a rib injury. But it’s worth noting that Jackson missed just three games in his first four seasons due to injury.

The shortcomings have been well-documented. Jackson is never going to be a serious red-zone threat. And he’s not going to be someone who makes tough, contested catches over the middle. But he has elite speed and is only 26-years-old. Jackson sounds legitimately excited to play for Chip Kelly and is without question a key part of this offense going forward.

Jeremy Maclin – His 2012 numbers were right around his career averages: 69 catches for 857 yards and seven touchdowns. With Jackson on the field, Maclin averaged 50.4 yards per game. Without him, Maclin averaged 70.6. Fans sometime rip on him for constantly begging referees for flags, but it’s worth noting that his tactics often worked. Maclin led the NFL, drawing 134 yards worth of pass interference penalties, according to Football Outsiders. And while he sometimes gets the injury-prone label, Maclin has missed five games in four seasons – not an egregious amount.

Maclin does several things well. He had 12 catches of 20+ yards last season to lead the team, and also had eight red-zone grabs (three touchdowns). Over the last three seasons, Maclin’s found the end zone 22 times. However, he doesn’t have one specific skill that stands out as being special, and is probably not the ideal complement to Jackson. Maclin’s strength is not making tough, contested catches over the middle of the field.

Scheduled to be a free agent after the 2013 season, Maclin is only 24-years-old. The Eagles have three options in the coming months: extend him, trade him or let him play the deal out.

Jason Avant – At this point, you know what you’re getting with Avant. A tough, veteran slot receiver with great hands. Only Wes Welker (88), Randall Cobb (63) and Victor Cruz (58) had more catches in the slot than Avant (51) last season, per PFF. He’ll make “wow” plays on occasion and is reliable, even though he doesn’t have the speed or size to be a consistent playmaker. With Jackson and Maclin on the outside, the Eagles need someone to do the dirty work in between the numbers. And Avant’s been that guy.

Riley Cooper – After Jackson went down, he got a chance for increased playing time. Cooper played at least 70 percent of the snaps in each of the Eagles’ final seven games, but averaged just 29.4 yards per contest. On the season, he averaged just 10.8 yards catch, although as I mentioned above, the Eagles’ vertical passing game never got going because of shaky offensive line and quarterback play. Going forward, Cooper is probably best suited for the No. 4 WR/special-teams role. If the personnel on the roster remains the same, he could be used in special red-zone packages as well.

Damaris Johnson – He had 19 catches for 256 yards on 30 targets. Johnson showed flashes of being able to make defenders miss, averaging 5.5 yards after the catch (tops on the team). He also improved in the second half of the season as the team’s primary punt returner. Johnson will be competing for a roster spot, but could be a guy Kelly likes.

LOOKING AHEAD

Like with everything else, the key question this offseason is: What does Kelly want? And how will he best utilize his personnel?

For example, roles will change. Kelly’s gone on record as saying his wide receivers won’t play if they don’t block. As we’ve pointed out here in the past, Eagles wide receivers did a terrible job of blocking in the run game last season. That will have to change.

It’s almost a guarantee that Jackson will be used differently. What’s the plan when teams play their safeties deep against the Eagles? Kelly’s past indicates he’ll run the ball. And Jackson should see plenty of looks on WR screens. He could see touches out of the backfield as well.

The Maclin situation is an intriguing one. The guess here is that the Eagles let him play out his contract – at least to start 2013. But a trade or even an extension are possible.

I’d be surprised if the Eagles made a splash at wide receiver in free agency, although there are some intriguing names at the top of the list, like Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe, Greg Jennings and Wes Welker. Wallace does a lot of the same things Jackson does, although a receiver like Bowe would give the Eagles some size. In the end, those players are going to demand high price tags, and I think the Eagles have too many holes to address elsewhere. Rotoworld has a comprehensive list of all the wide receiver free agents.

If the Eagles don’t think Maclin figures into their long-term plans, they could address wide receiver in the draft. They could also consider upgrading from Avant in the slot, especially if Kelly wants someone with more speed. Some have asked about Maclin as a potential option in the slot. Per PFF, he actually played 31.6 percent of his snaps in the slot last season. But again, making contested catches in traffic is not his strong suit.

Overall, I wouldn’t expect dramatic changes to this group of wide receivers, although there’s always the chance that Kelly and Howie Roseman surprise us.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.
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