More than three months after Chip Kelly said DeSean Jackson was released for football reasons, the Eagles’ head coach subtly clarified what he meant.
On the final question of a press conference last week, Kelly was asked about Riley Cooper. After praising Cooper’s ball skills, he offered up some fascinating insight about where he sees the league going at the wide receiver position.
"The fact that he's a 230‑pound receiver, it's tough to be really, truly physical and keep him pinned on the line of scrimmage," Kelly said. "Now in this league, it's continuing to go that way. Two of the best corners, Patrick Peterson, a guy that just signed an outstanding contract who I think is one of the tops in the league, [and] Richard Sherman, probably the two best guys are both big, physical corners and they'll try to beat you up on the line of scrimmage.
"If you can't get off the line of scrimmage, you're done. Moving towards that, I think the corners are getting bigger in this league, and the wideouts are getting bigger in this league. But that’s one of Riley's strengths is his ability to get off that stuff. No one's going to get off clean and just be running like you said down the field with no one around him for 4 or 5 yards. When the ball is up, you have to be able to go get it. Having a 6-4 guy that's 230 pounds, it helps."
Beating press coverage has been a focus at training camp. During one drill, cornerbacks line up directly across from wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. There's no pass involved. The defenders simply work on their technique, jamming the receivers, and the receivers do the same, working on their releases.
Asked if there's an added emphasis on winning vs. press coverage this year, Jeremy Maclin said, "Absolutely."
Added Nick Foles: "Definitely. Man coverage in this league, DBs are pretty talented, you're gonna see man coverage, and you have to be able to beat it. And that's where you also have to be able to place the ball really well. And we saw it last year. That's one of the things we learned last year and we started getting the hang of it, but definitely, we're seeing some man from our defense right now.
Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur explained that the biggest changes from the Oregon offense to the Eagles offense were the result of facing more man coverage at the NFL level.
While many around these parts are tired of talking about Jackson, any meaningful conversation about what Kelly wants at wide receiver has to include his name. In the first (and only) year of their partnership, Jackson piled up 82 catches for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns. He was one of three receivers to catch 80+ balls, average at least 16.0 YPR and score nine TDs (Calvin Johnson and Josh Gordon were the others). Attempts to knock Jackson's 2013 production are silly.
But like all receivers, he has strengths and weaknesses. Jackson lined up all over the formation, was fantastic with the ball in his hands and threatened defenses vertically like few others. Given his size, though, beating press coverage was not always Jackson's strength. We went back and looked at all 85 of his catches from a year ago (playoffs included), and only 15 came against press coverage.
There were a couple factors at work. One was that some corners were hesitant to play bump and run because if they lost at the line of scrimmage, they were done. Defenses frequently played with one high safety, and if Jackson had a step early in his route, he could do damage on home run plays downfield.
Another factor was that Kelly did what all good coaches do: He tried to put his players in positions to succeed. With Jackson, that sometimes meant taking away the defense's ability to press him:
Here you see a bunch look. It's man coverage, but the cornerback can't press Jackson because of alignment and formation.
Jackson also lined up in the backfield more and more towards the end of the season. This was especially effective against the Vikings:
The truth is, you don't get rid of a receiver like Jackson just because he sometimes needs help in getting free. You just give him that help. Not every cornerback is Sherman or Peterson, and Jackson showed that in this scheme he can be a weapon. While the "buying in" stuff remains vague, clearly there were other factors at work, and if Jackson were a Kelly guy, he'd still be here.
But still, Kelly's obsession is with scoring points, and there does seem to be a football aspect to the decision.
"Overall, we tried to get bigger at the receiver spot," he told Ross Tucker and Bill Polian during a recent Sirius XM interview. "Riley Cooper is 6-4. He's 227. Jeremy Maclin's 6-1, he's 200. I don't think we have a receiver... we have one receiver now on our roster that's under 200 pounds.
"But it's a big, physical league. I know there's an emphasis on defensive holding and pass interference they're talking about, but you can't rely on the call. You better be physical and be able to get off of press and get off of jam, and there's some real big... the trend on the defensive side is you're going to bigger corners - the Richard Shermans of the world. We played the Cardinals and you see Patrick Peterson come out. He's 220 pounds playing corner. There's some big guys out there, and we felt like we needed to get bigger at receiver."
It's an idea that Greg Cosell of NFL Films wrote about in a Yahoo Sports column earlier this offseason:
However, in this era of taller and bigger wide receivers, the concept of separation has changed. Distance between receiver and corner does not necessarily have to be the defining criterion. The ability to use your long or wide body against shorter and smaller corners has become just as valuable an attribute, especially with more and more man-to-man coverage being played.
Separation is not the defining characteristic needed for them to be dangerous receiving threats. What throw has become such a critical part of the NFL game?: the back shoulder fade. The back shoulder throw is almost impossible to defend against big, physical wideouts like Evans and Benjamin; corners cannot defend two routes, and they must play the deep ball first, so a well-executed back shoulder throw to a big-bodied wide receiver is a tactical nightmare for even the best of corners.
Again, it's not just about size, and Kelly took a serious gamble by unloading Jackson for nothing in return.
But if you combine his comments with the focus on back shoulder throws and the fact that beating man coverage appears to be Kelly's obsession, there appears to be more validity to the football reasons argument now than there was three months ago.