Time is running out for the Eagles to justify bringing back injury-prone DeSean Jackson | Jeff McLane
The team had an obvious need for outside speed on offense, but rather than take a risk in free agency or the draft, general manager Howie Roseman went with a known commodity.
When DeSean Jackson was introduced upon his return to Philadelphia in March 2019, he arrived at his news conference in a green silk shirt that clearly hadn’t been ironed.
The shirt had creases that made it look like it had just been bought off the shelf or pulled from packaging. While Jackson’s nod to his team’s color was charming, that he had likely shown up unprepared for the podium was apt considering the Eagles' short-sighted trade for the wide receiver.
The team had an obvious need for outside speed on offense, but rather than take a risk in free agency or the draft, general manager Howie Roseman went with a known commodity. Jackson had shown little regression in terms of quickness, but injuries had mounted as he neared his mid-30s.
Roseman, though, saw the opportunity to correct the release of the lithe receiver that former Eagles coach Chip Kelly had driven five years earlier, while also obtaining one of the most explosive players in NFL history.
Nineteen months and just six games later, the acquisition of Jackson and the subsequent three-year, $27 million contract that the Eagles gave him have proven to be as ill-fated as his initial departure.
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The 33-year old has missed 15 games to injury and will add another to that total Sunday after he was declared out for the Steelers game with a hamstring strain. The Eagles had been limiting Jackson’s practice time, and in the season opener his snaps, to help prevent setbacks with the goal of having him play most of the season.
But even those measures couldn’t stop what has seemed inevitable. And each time he has gotten hurt, the Eagles have taken further precaution for fear of worsening a soft-tissue injury.
“He knows how to practice; he knows how to play,” coach Doug Pederson said before practice Wednesday when Jackson was a limited participant. “It’s a situation where he’s a speed guy and he has to make sure, and we have to make sure that we’re giving him the proper amount of rest.”
Jackson was limited the rest of the week, as well. Pederson has expressed no disillusionment with his top receiver’s unavailability, but the uncertainty has to make it difficult to implement a game plan with him in mind.
“He’s embraced what [director of sports performance] Ted Rath and his team, the medical staff have put in place for him with his specific injuries and lower-body injuries and of course his hamstring,” Pederson said. “It’s all about strengthening and getting him healthy there and making sure there’s no soreness. You want him to be 100 percent.”
But the Eagles have had Jackson at 100 percent, in terms of health and playing time, for essentially one game, last season’s opener, when he caught eight passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns. In the five other games in which he played, three of which he left early, he had only 11 catches for 126 yards and no touchdowns.
“The one game I did play in last year I think whoever was watching that game knows what DeSean Jackson can still do,” Jackson said last month before this season’s opener. "Staying healthy is a big key to this. Regardless [of] the naysayers, the doubters, the non-believers, I live for that, man.
“My whole career, I’ve always been against the odds, so I look forward to this year. But I ain’t going to speak too much, I’m just going to show it.”
Jackson was on the field for just 54% of the offensive snaps in the Eagles' Week 1 loss at Washington. Many outside observers initially questioned if he was hurt, but he posted on Twitter that he was healthy. “I’m good,” he said. He hasn’t spoken with reporters since Sept. 9.
“We were just trying to be smart with DeSean. Make sure we get a healthy DeSean for 16 weeks. That’s the goal,” wide receivers coach Aaron Moorehead said several days after the Washington game. “A healthy DeSean on Sunday changes our football team.”
But he caught only two passes for 46 yards in the opener, and six catches for only 64 yards the next week even though his playing time increased to 77%. Quarterback Carson Wentz and the offense’s struggles haven’t helped Jackson’s production, but he might not scare opposing defenses as much as he used to.
On the opening play against the Bengals in Week 3, the Eagles had a shot play designed for Jackson, who ran a go route. It was an ill-advised throw from Wentz as there was safety help over top, but the receiver couldn’t separate from the cornerback, who initially pressed at the line.
It was just one play, but Jackson saw only three more targets, two of which he caught for 11 yards, before he left late in the first half with the hamstring strain.
Despite missing Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, Jalen Reagor, and JJ Arcega-Whiteside – their four most expensive receivers – the Eagles won last week at the 49ers with the likes of Greg Ward, John Hightower, and Travis Fulgham.
Of the four, only Arcega-Whiteside has the green light for Pittsburgh. The 2019 second-round draft pick has been a disappointment. Reagor, the Eagles' top pick in May, flashed in his first two games but has now had multiple injuries, a labrum strain and a ligament tear in his thumb that is expected to keep him out until next month.
No other team in the NFL has gotten so little in return from its two highest-paid receivers. Jeffery, who signed a four-year, $52.25 million extension in December 2017, has missed 14 games in the last three seasons to various injuries.
He was a possibility to play Sunday for the first time this season after foot surgery last December, but he contracted a non-COVID illness this past week and was also ruled out.
The Eagles can say that bad luck has factored into their misery at the position, but the ineffectiveness of certain players and the rash of injuries can be attributed to an overall failure to evaluate and project the position.
Jeffery had missed 13 games to injury plus four more for using performance-enhancing drugs in five seasons with the Bears. He played through a torn labrum in 2017 as the Eagles won the Super Bowl, but he has been mostly unreliable since.
Jackson had missed 15 games in the five seasons between his Eagles stints. The decision to trade for him before the Bucs were to release him – the teams swapped only late-round picks – wasn’t unanimous among the team’s decision makers.
Roseman spearheaded the move and, of course, has final say. The free-agent market was light, but the Eagles passed on a younger speed option in John Brown, who also signed a three-year, $27 million deal.
Brown, three years younger than Jackson, has missed only one game the last two years and has caught 86 passes for 1,254 yards and eight touchdowns for the Bills over that span.
Few may have objected had the Eagles opted to part with Jackson this offseason, whether for performance-related issues or after he posted anti-Semitic quotes on Instagram.
Jackson apologized and the Eagles denounced his comments. They didn’t cut him, however, and said that he must engage in educating himself on Jewish history and reach out to community leaders.
He agreed to join Patriots receiver Julian Edelman on a trip to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and accepted an invitation from a survivor to visit the site of a concentration camp in Poland. It’s unclear when he plans on making those treks.
Still, it was hard not to be cynical about his return. Jackson carries the Eagles' sixth-highest salary cap figure for 2020 ($8.609 million) – behind Fletcher Cox ($22,847,000), Wentz ($18,656,536), Jeffery ($15,396,500), Zach Ertz ($12,481,500), and Lane Johnson ($10,298,211) – and would be needed on the field with Reagor and other rookie receivers' integration further hampered by the truncated offseason.
But it was also a gamble. When Jackson suffered a core muscle injury in the second game of last season, it not only left the Eagles shorthanded but it started a weeks-long guessing game as to when he would be ready since he opted to hold off surgery.
The decision to wait, though, was faulty, and in November his season was shut down after he had the procedure.
“If I could do it all over again,” Jackson said last month, “I probably would get surgery the first time around.”
While Roseman could probably say the same in respect to acquiring Jackson, like the receiver, he should have known the end result wouldn’t justify the means.