From the moment their offseason began, through the coronavirus pandemic, on those rare Zoom-fueled opportunities that they have allowed themselves to be asked about him, the Eagles have talked up Alshon Jeffery. Alshon is on the comeback trail from his Lisfranc injury. Alshon hears the whispers and wants to prove the doubters wrong. Alshon is setting a great example for his teammates. He apparently was still doing all those things as of last week.
“Alshon has done extremely well with his rehab,” coach Doug Pederson said during a video meeting with media members. “I’ve been really impressed with everybody [who has] taken part, and Alshon is one of the guys — the dialogue that he’s had in the receiver room, being able to converse with some of the young players that we have on our roster and just getting themselves back healthy. Obviously, there’s no timetable for him right now. I just want him to focus on his rehab and get strong.”
The Eagles’ public comments on Jeffery, whether from Pederson or executive vice president Howie Roseman, have been positive and flavored with the overwrought and dubious sincerity of a Player Queen monologue. Everyone is aware of the trajectory of Jeffery’s three-year tenure with the Eagles: catching three touchdowns over the 2017-18 NFC championship game and Super Bowl, dropping that pass against the Saints the following year, playing fewer games each season and looking slower on his routes, allegedly feeding spiteful little quotes and complaints about Carson Wentz and the rest of the team to reporter Josina Anderson. Everyone, including Jeffery, is aware that, even after signing him to a four-year extension in December 2017, then restructuring his contract to guarantee his salary for this season, the Eagles tried to trade him last year.
For a while, that desire to move on from Jeffery would have accounted for the Eagles’ spinning an aging, discontented receiver as a player who would be rejuvenated and raring to go. That’s what any team that might consider surrendering something, anything, of value for Jeffery would want to hear. But the terms and purposes of that praise have changed. If releasing or trading Jeffery was difficult before — even once the NFL’s new CBA allowed the Eagles to spread Jeffery’s $26 million dead-cap penalty over two seasons — it became damn near impossible once the pandemic arrived. It has threatened to cut into league revenue and lower the cap threshold, assuming there’s a 2020 NFL season at all, and it has likely made teams more reluctant to make changes or additions to their rosters so close to the beginning of their already-disrupted training camps.
So whatever choice the Eagles once had about keeping Jeffery is really gone now. He’ll be back, whether he or Wentz or Roseman or anyone else is all that thrilled about it or not. The more pressing questions now have to do with his recovery from his Lisfranc surgery and his disposition once he returns.
“He’s a big part of our offense, and we do plan to have him in the offense at some point,” Pederson said. “But if there’s a couple of games there where he’s not ready, then we’re not going to put him out there and just wait for him to get healthy. But yeah, he is a big part of the process moving forward, and he’s a great leader, and he’s going to be able to help the young players come along.”
Again, Pederson is laying on the love thick there, but he and the Eagles have nothing to lose in doing so. Whatever they get from Jeffery and/or DeSean Jackson this season ought to be considered a pleasant surprise. Those costs are sunk, and after several years of building around Wentz’s bargain-level contract, the Eagles can’t approach this season as another all-or-pretty-much-nothing proposition.
This is shaping up to be one of those years that former Eagles president Joe Banner used to speak of often when explaining the value of having a great quarterback. No team can afford to “go all-in” every year, but an elite quarterback can keep his team competitive even while the franchise tries to develop young talent, hopes its veterans can extract a bit more excellence from their tired bodies, and waits for some unwieldy contracts to expire. It only seemed, for instance, that the Patriots maximized their resources every season while Bill Belichick was their coach and Tom Brady was their quarterback. It seemed that way because Bill Belichick was their coach and Tom Brady was their quarterback. Sometimes, they signed Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Sometimes, their best wide receiver was Reche Caldwell.
The Eagles followed that same philosophy with Donovan McNabb, and they’re following it now with Wentz. The benefit is a situation like last season, when Wentz’s marvelous play over the final four weeks won the Eagles the NFC East, and the price can be a situation like this one. They’ve already lost their best player, guard Brandon Brooks. They have to replace the leader of their defense and their locker room, Malcolm Jenkins. They’re banking that Jalen Reagor can step in right away and contribute, that Greg Ward’s productivity out of the slot last season wasn’t a fluke, and that Alshon Jeffery can be healthy and happy, for a little while anyway. It’s not a best-case scenario, but at least they have practice in making it sound like one.