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With DeSean Jackson healthy again, explosive-play potential returns to Eagles’ offense

If 33-year-old DeSean Jackson can stay healthy, the Eagles might regain the quick-strike capability they had in Week 1 against Washington last season.

Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson (left) talks to teammate Zach Ertz during a recent training camp practice.
Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson (left) talks to teammate Zach Ertz during a recent training camp practice.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Last September, DeSean Jackson was everything the Eagles had hoped he’d be when they brought the then-32-year-old wide receiver back to Philadelphia.

He lit up Washington’s secondary in the Eagles’ season-opening 32-27 win. Targeted nine times by Carson Wentz, he caught eight passes for 154 yards, including two long third-down touchdown plays, one for 51 yards and the other for 53.

Wentz completed 28 of 39 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns that day. His 8.0 yards-per-attempt average would be his highest of the season.

He was unstoppable on third down, completing 12 of 13 passes for 199 yards and all three of his TDs. Six of those third-down completions and two of those three TD tosses were to Jackson.

But the music stopped a week later when Jackson suffered a core injury 10 snaps into the Eagles’ 24-20 loss to Atlanta. He played just four more snaps the rest of the season.

The Eagles’ two other top wideouts, Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor, also missed significant time with injuries. But Jackson’s was the one that took the air out of the Eagles’ explosive passing game.

They finished the season with the fifth-fewest pass plays of 30 yards or more in the NFL – just 15. After Jackson got hurt, Wentz threw one more 30-plus-yard touchdown pass the rest of the season – a 32-yarder torunning back Miles Sanders against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 6 when the rookie took advantage of a coverage matchup against linebacker Eric Kendricks.

The Eagles essentially became the football equivalent of a station-to-station baseball team. They had just four touchdown drives of four or fewer plays the entire season, three after Jackson got hurt. That’s a far cry from the 11 they had in 2017 when they won the Super Bowl, and the nine they had in 2018. Sanders ended up leading the team in 30-plus-yard receptions with five.

With Jackson healthy again, and the Eagles adding more outside speed in the draft with Jalen Reagor, John Hightower, and Quez Watkins, coach Doug Pederson is hopeful that the receivers can restore the quick-strike capability to their offense.

“One thing with DeSean, he feels good, he feels healthy and he’s ready to go for the regular season,” Pederson said. “Getting him back in the offense is just a boost. It’s a really good thing for us to have him back in the lineup.”

Reagor, the team’s first-round pick, injured a shoulder in training camp and will miss Sunday’s season opener in Washington, and probably their Week 2 home opener against the Los Angeles Rams as well. But Hightower, the team’s fourth-round pick, is expected to play against Washington.

“He did a good job in camp and really earned a spot on our roster, and I’m looking forward to [seeing him play],” Pederson said of the former Boise State star. “He’s another one we’ve got to get caught up obviously with the game plan and narrow some things down with him.”

Washington’s pass defense wasn’t very good last year. It gave up 35 passing touchdowns, which was the third-most in the NFL. It allowed 24 pass plays of 30 yards or more, the 11th most in the league.

But it has a new coaching staff, headed up by Ron Rivera and his defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio. It has added several new players on the back end, including Pro Bowl safety Landon Collins and cornerbacks Kendall Fuller and ex-Eagle Ronald Darby.

Even at 33 (he turns 34 in December), Jackson still is one of the league’s fastest players and most dangerous vertical threats. The biggest question with someone his age is whether he can stay healthy.

Ninety-nine of his 598 career receptions have been 30 yards or more. Since 1994, just two players have more 30-plus-yard catches: Hall of Famers Randy Moss (121) and Terrell Owens (109). Jackson’s 17.4-yards-per-catch career average is the highest among all active receivers.

“I’m excited about our [explosive-play] potential,” Wentz said. “Obviously, having DeSean back out there is big. Hightower’s done some great things. Reagor’s had a great camp. And we all know what Miles can bring to the game.

“So we do have the ability to be explosive. We have the guys to do it. I think we have the scheme to do it as well. So I’m hoping and looking forward to that kind of changing and being a big part of what we do and who we are this year. Obviously, we’ve got to go out and execute. But I think we have the right pieces in place to be explosive when we need to be.”