DeSean Jackson turns 25 years old today.
Less than a year ago, he delivered his signature moment as a pro, returning a punt 65 yards to the end zone to cap off a 38-31 comeback win over the Giants.
Now, Jackson's future with the franchise that drafted him in the second round of the 2008 draft is very much in question.
Over the past week, I've listened to arguments that Jackson's time here is over. That his performance last week, when he dropped three passes (two in the end zone) and shied away from contact is unforgivable. That the Eagles should bid farewell to him this offseason.
And I get it.
But it's not that simple.
Jackson's had a down year. I don't think you'll find anyone to argue otherwise (except maybe Drew Rosenhaus). Even so, he's still been one of the more dynamic big-play threats in the league. Jackson's averaging 17.0 yards per catch, which isn't as high as his average last year (22.5), but is only slightly below his career average going into the season (18.2).
But he's not making as many big plays.
Maybe, but Jackson still has 10 catches of 25+ yards on the season. Only three wide receivers in the entire NFL (Carolina's Steve Smith, Vincent Jackson and Calvin Johnson) have more.
The problem is not that Jackson has had trouble getting open. The problem is not that Jackson isn't getting enough looks (he's averaging 7.6 targets per game, more than last year's number of 6.9).
The problems are two-fold. And one of them is easily measured: drops.
Jackson has nine drops on the season, tied for third-most, according to STATS.com. And when Jackson drops the ball, it's a bigger deal than when others drop the ball, because he's not a 100-catch guy. He's a receiver that is expected to capitalize on huge, game-changing plays when given the opportunity.
UPDATE: Second chart and additional notes added Thursday afternoon for better context.
I went back and took a closer look at the drops to see if they increased after his concussions. Here are the numbers. The second column, Catchable Balls, is the sum of catches and drops. The third column, Drop Rate, is the percentage of drops per catchable balls. And the Drop numbers in the first column are courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
The numbers support what your eyes have been telling you: Jackson's performance in terms of catching the football has taken a significant dip since he suffered the concussions. Before the first concussion, he had dropped just 9.3 percent of the balls thrown his way. Since then, he's dropped 17.3 percent of the balls thrown his way.
The real change came at the beginning of the 2010 season. In Jackson's first two seasons, he dropped 9.2 percent of the catchable balls. In the past two seasons, he's dropped 19.3 percent.
He's only missed two of a possible 62 games in four seasons because of injury, but health has, and will continue to be, a storyline when discussing Jackson's career.
The second factor is not easily measured: Jackson's relationship with his teammates and coaches, and how it affects chemistry.
Jackson was told to stay home a couple weeks ago against Arizona. And then he was benched in the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss to the Patriots. In general, players support one another and are unified against management in contract squabbles. But I remember being in the locker room after the Cardinals game and hearing pretty much every player back Andy Reid's decision to punish Jackson for missing a team meeting.
There is a human element to this also. Jackson is young and should just now be entering the prime of his career. When his rookie contract expires at the end of the year, he'll have reportedly made about $3.46M in four NFL seasons. A nice chunk of change for you and I, but not "big money" by NFL standards.
Jackson's performance last week probably didn't sit well with his teammates. Jason Avant got laid out attempting to catch a Vince Young pass. Tight end Clay Harbor did the same. But Jackson chose not to. Twice. His teammates noticed that. And so did his coaches.
But I can understand why he did what he did, and why he very much appears to be a conflicted player. Regardless of how this thing plays out, Jackson is five games away from a big payday. He's suffered two concussions in four seasons and knows that one hit can end his career. Even if Jackson plays under the franchise tag in 2012, he'll make a reported $9.4M, nearly three times what he's earned in his first four seasons.
So, the question going forward is this: Is the Jackson situation salvageable? The Eagles have three options once the season is over.
The best-case scenario is that the two sides come to an agreement on a contract extension. Jackson provides the Eagles with the deep threat they need to complement the other pieces of this offense. His performance improves with the peace of mind of having a new deal, and Jackson teams up with Jeremy Maclin to re-write the franchise's record books.
The other two options involve Jackson playing in another city next season and beyond. Maybe the Eagles conclude that they have to pay LeSean McCoy and Maclin (both contracts are up after 2012), and decide that Jackson is not worth the trouble.
In this scenario, one option is to just let him walk after the season. That seems unlikely, but it's not totally out of the question.
The final option is to use the franchise tag and trade Jackson. While this is more appealing than letting him walk - because the Eagles would get something in return - it might not be that easy to find a trade partner. There will definitely be interest in Jackson for the reasons I detailed above. But if he's looking for Larry Fitzgerald money, I don't think there's a team in the league that will deal for him. Remember, any team that deals for Jackson would have to come to terms with the Eagles on compensation AND be able to work out a long-term deal with him.
At the rate things are currently developing, there's no telling what the Eagles' relationship will be like with Jackson a month from now when they play their final regular-season game against the Redskins. Much has changed in the past year, and Jackson's future in Philadelphia is very much in question.