DeSean Jackson Hints At New Role With Kelly

For DeSean Jackson, change can be good.

The sixth-year wide receiver isn’t sure exactly how Chip Kelly plans on using him offensively, but he’s looking forward to finding out.

“I’m very excited about the opportunity,” Jackson said Wednesday. “Whatever the role is, hopefully being able to play multiple positions, being moved around is something I’m looking forward to as well, so I have a lot on my shoulders. I’ve got to get that playbook down. I’ve got to learn it and am looking forward to it.”

Jackson finished last year with 45 catches 700 yards – both career-lows. But the numbers can be deceiving. Because the Eagles got shaky quarterback play, and the offensive line failed to protect on downfield routes, Jackson’s opportunities for big plays didn’t measure up to previous seasons.

In some ways, he actually rebounded nicely. In 2011, Jackson let his contract become a distraction, getting benched for a game against the Cardinals and dropping nine balls in 15 games, per Pro Football Focus. In 2012, Jackson dropped only one ball and averaged 4.1 catches per game, tying his career-high.

The question going forward is: What roles under Kelly best fit Jackson’s skill set?

Some have wondered why he can’t be used more in the slot. If you’re thinking classic inside receiver, that’s not Jackson. Catching the ball in traffic and absorbing big hits is not a strong suit for the 5-10, 175-pounder. But not all slot receivers are created equal. Perhaps there is an opportunity for Jackson to line up inside, create mismatches and hit on big plays.

“Just really moving me around, keeping defenses off-guard,” he said. “I think a lot of times in the past couple years, teams really were able to key in on me and things like that.”

Below is a table showing how often he’s been used in the slot in his first five seasons. The numbers are courtesy of Pro Football Focus. The first column shows how often he lined up in the slot, and the second shows the percentage of targets that came when he was in the slot.

 
Slot %
Slot Target %
Slot Catches
Slot Yards
Slot YPR
200819.8%22.0%1733319.6
200922.6%26.1%1935518.7
201016.4%25.3%1335727.5
201116.5%22.2%1219716.4
201217.3%15.6%917919.9

As you can see, he wasn’t used exclusively on the outside under Andy Reid. In Jackson’s second season, he lined up in the slot 22.6 percent of the time. In 2010, he averaged an absurd 27.5 yards per catch while playing inside.

“I think this year coming up with Chip coming in here, with the style of play of his offense, it’s really going to help me out a lot more too as well, just because I’m going to be able to get certain looks, get the ball in my hands, do different things that we weren’t doing the past five years,” Jackson said. “That’s going to be an exciting time for myself, but at the same time, I’m going to have to be fully in shape, fully prepared and fully ready.”

Jackson has drawn some comparisons to Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas, but those probably are off-base. Kelly explained earlier this offseason that Thomas is more of a running back than Jackson.

In his first three seasons in the league, Jackson ran the ball 44 times for 337 yards, averaging 7.7 yards per carry. But the past two seasons, he’s had just 10 carries for 34 yards, averaging 3.4 yards per attempt. Last year, Jackson suffered the fractured ribs on a run against the Panthers.

His slight frame and build will continue to be a topic of conversation. But it’s worth noting that Jackson missed just two games due to injury in his first four seasons. Last year, though, he was forced to sit out the final five. Finding the right balance between maximizing Jackson’s talent and keeping him out of harm’s way is something Kelly will have to negotiate.

And the final potential role, of course, is as a punt returner. In his first three seasons, Jackson returned 99 punts and took four to the house. Last year, he returned just one all season, and in 2011, he was ineffective, averaging just 6.7 yards per return.

The 26-year-old seems excited about the possibility of once again contributing to special teams.

“Hopefully it’ll be a little more than last year, being able to get back there and make some big-time punt returns go off,” Jackson said. “It’s still early, so we’re still trying to figure out everything.”

Jackson is clearly one of Kelly’s more dynamic playmakers. More screens, touches out of the backfield, punt returns – everything appears to be in play right now.

But we’ll have to wait a few months to find out just what the head coach has planned for the speed wide receiver.

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