DeSean Jackson returns to the Eagles a changed man, or so he said.
In his first go-around in Philadelphia, the roadrunner-like wide receiver was so physically gifted that he often didn’t think he had to take extra steps to secure his success. In some ways, he was right.
But taking care of your body is as much about the future as it is the present. And while it may have taken physical reminders for the older Jackson to understand the purpose, he said that aging has altered his lifestyle choices.
“At a young age, you don’t have to look at how am I taking care of my body, how I’m resting, how much am I partying, how much am I doing the wrong things,” Jackson, 32, said Thursday. “I think as you get older, you mature, you wake up and you say, ‘Oh, my body’s hurting a little more. Maybe I got to go sit in the hot tub a little longer. Maybe I need to get to work earlier, get on the field and go stretch out.’
“Little things like that, that as a young kid when I was 24 I didn’t have to do. I could just wake up out of my bed and go run. I used to always say, ‘Cheetahs don’t stretch.’ … But now I’m a little older and these joints hurt a little more.”
The Eagles wouldn’t have traded for Jackson last week had they not believed he had matured some. They don’t necessarily want a different version of him on the field. But the fact that he remains one of the fastest receivers in the NFL supports his claim that he doesn’t cut corners as much anymore.
There will come a time when Jackson can’t outrun defensive backs, when perhaps his past transgressions will run him down. But the Eagles need only two more years out of his legs. Watching his 2018 film and listening to him during his re-introductory news conference, it’s hard not to envision Jackson’s maintaining his level of play and helping the Eagles win.
Jackson, of course, has said the right things before only to do the opposite. Will the 2.0 version put in the necessary amount of work? Will he lead by example? Will he accept a secondary role on offense?
As he stood there behind the NovaCare lectern Thursday, bling’d out in diamonds, platinum, and gold, yet missing one essential piece of jewelry for any NFL player, Jackson sounded sincere when asked about his expectations upon returning to his original team.
“If you ask anybody in this building … the point in bringing a guy like me back in, it’s to help this team win. We’re not in for any other reasons,” Jackson said. “Individually, hopefully, accolades, all that stuff, and I can add on. But at the end of the day, we want to win. I want to be able to put some jewelry on my finger.”
Jackson was close to playing in a Super Bowl in his rookie season. The Eagles fell agonizingly short in the 2009 NFC championship game loss to the Cardinals. But Jackson has played in the postseason only four times since, and his performance in those games was underwhelming.
The Eagles likely factored that into the equation when contemplating a return. But Howie Roseman likely never wanted to part with Jackson in the first place. Few dispute the notion that he was doing Chip Kelly’s bidding when the Pro Bowl receiver was released five Marches ago. And the Eagles have lacked a true home run threat since.
Torrey Smith filled the role to an extent and enough to aid the Eagles in their Super Bowl victory two years ago. But Jackson’s big-play abilities may be unequaled among modern receivers. He has the most 60-plus-yard receiving touchdowns (24) and the sixth-highest per-reception average (17.4) in NFL history.
Jackson had previously stated his desire to return. He did so in 2016 during his final season with the Redskins, and again this offseason, even though he had one year left on his contract with the Buccaneers. Roseman couldn’t say anything publicly, but he pined for Jackson’s return, sources close to the situation said.
Their mutual desire made a trade rather easy to pull off. Tampa had been prepared to release the unhappy receiver. The Eagles forfeited a 2020 sixth-round draft pick in exchange for Jackson and a 2020 seventh-rounder.
Both sides would also want a contract extension – the Eagles to lower the cap hit for 2019 and to justify the compensation, and Jackson to get more guaranteed money. But Roseman had to make sure the offer was appealing enough compared with the contracts free-agent receivers were getting, so that Jackson wouldn’t balk.
John Brown, for instance, a receiver comparable to Jackson, signed a three-year, $27 million contract with $11.6 million guaranteed with the Bills. Adam Humphries, while a slot receiver, got a four-year, $36 million deal with $19 million guaranteed from the Titans. And Ty Williams, the top free agent at his position, was signed by the Raiders for four years and $44 million, with $22 million guaranteed.
Jackson, meanwhile, agreed to a new three-year contract worth $27.6 million, with $15 million guaranteed. His signing bonus ($7.17 million), 2019 base salary ($1.030 million), and $4.8 million of his 2020 base salary ($8.02 million) are fully guaranteed, which means the Eagles are unlikely to cut him after one year.
He has already earned approximately $69 million from his previous contracts, so there shouldn’t be financial issues. But Jackson will be the Eagles’ third-highest- paid receiver, on a per-year basis, behind Alshon Jeffery ($13 million) and Nelson Agholor ($9.4 million).
Jackson wouldn’t have signed the contract if that were a problem, and he seemed to be willing to accept a secondary role. When he last played for the Eagles in 2013, he had 41 more targets than the next player. He wasn’t the most targeted receiver with the Redskins or Buccaneers, but with Jeffery, Agholor and tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, Jackson will likely have to wait to see the ball more than ever in his career.
He said that he spoke with Roseman vaguely about his role, but he can’t talk football with coach Doug Pederson and his staff for another month.
“I’m just ready to get back and add to what they already have,” Jackson said. “It’s not really much they need.”
They need speed, particularly on the outside. There still aren’t many receivers who are faster. The NFL’s next-generation statistics aren’t exactly scientific, but Jackson was clocked at 21.48 m.p.h. once as a ballcarrier, the 18th-fastest speed in the NFL last season. In 2016, he hit 22.6 m.p.h., second only to the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill (23.24 and 22.77).
Jackson claims that he’s as fast as ever and credits his 25-year training relationship with track coach Gary Cablayan.
“Everybody used to always give me a hard time – ‘You never really lift weights,’” Jackson said. “I would lift enough, but instead of lifting weights I’m standing on a track field. I kind of look at it as an Olympian track runner. That’s how I’ve been able to keep my speed.”
He led the NFL in yards per catch (18.9 average) for the fourth time last year. Most of the yards came through the air, but Jackson’s career yards-after-catch average (5.6) is respectable, especially compared with his contemporaries of similar skill, like Mike Wallace (4.7) and Smith (4.6).
Jackson’s third-down and red-zone numbers, however, aren’t as impressive. Only 20.9 percent of his receptions have been on third down and only 5.8 percent in the red zone, which pale in comparison with Wallace (23.4 and 9.1) and Smith (27.6 and 9.7).
He had a strong postseason debut and averaged 3.7 catches for 69 yards and scored a touchdown in three games in 2008. But in four games since he has averaged only 2.5 catches for 32.8 yards and scored one touchdown.
There are many variables to consider when qualifying Jackson’s performance over the years. He can’t possibly be held responsible for playing on losing teams for most of his last eight seasons. He has played with eight different starting quarterbacks over that span.
Carson Wentz may be the best quarterback he will play with in his career. But they will likey face an assimilation period. How will Jackson respond if they have difficulty developing chemistry?
Jackson could be electric in practices during his first tenure with the Eagles. But he wasn’t always available. He was good for at least one suspicious soft-tissue strain in training camp. He was often the last guy out, first guy in before and after workouts.
And there were various transgressions that often had him in the coach’s doghouse. In 2008, he dropped a football short of scoring a touchdown when he celebrated early. In 2010, he refused to field practice punts before the Bears game and drew then-coach Andy Reid’s ire in the locker room after the loss.
By 2011, Jackson had let his contract situation – he wanted an extension – become a distraction. He held out for the first few weeks of camp before finally arriving without a new deal. Later in the season he was suspended for a game the Eagles eventually lost when he showed up late for a team meeting.
“When I was younger I had the world at my hands … having all that success early in my career,” Jackson said. “It was kind of hard to get a hold of that at a young age. But you have to go through things in life in order to mature.”
Jackson got his extension before the 2012 season, and mostly stayed out of trouble for the next two seasons. But Kelly had grown tired of his act, and after the 2013 season he told Roseman he wanted him gone.
The Eagles conveniently released Jackson after an NJ.com story that painted Jackson as a gangster with nefarious relationships was posted online. He said last week that he no longer had “hard feelings,” but he acknowledged that competing against the Eagles “was personal.”
In six games, in which the Redskins and Bucs went 5-1 against his former team, he caught 24 passes for 569 yards and three touchdowns. Last season, when the Eagles visited Tampa, Jackson said Pederson approached him during an injury break.
“He walked over to the sideline and was like, ‘Man, why are you so mad at me?’” Jackson said. “I’m like, ‘It’s not you.’”
Jackson has long played with a chip on his shoulder, partly because of his size. He’s generously listed as 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds. But he could be every bit the diva or malcontent and his behavior didn’t always go over well in the locker room and in meetings.
But Jackson said that he wants to become more of a leader and to mentor younger players. He spoke of his legacy and how he wanted to be remembered. He has accomplished much in his first 11 seasons, more than some predicted when he was drafted out of California, but his resume is still lacking a title and his reputation is still, in some circles, dubious.
“I thought I put a lot of hard work in to my career and to where I’m at, still standing here 12 years in, who would have ever thought,” Jackson said. “It’s a lot of doubters, a lot of naysayers that always said I was never going to make it, I was always too small.
“I still inside me I have the desire to go out there and still be great and still have a lot to prove.”