The Eagles are going to franchise DeSean Jackson, count on it.
They will not let their Pro Bowl receiver - whose contract is set to expire - walk without getting something in return, according to NFL sources.
So that means the Eagles will do one of three things before March 5:
They will franchise Jackson and keep him for the 2012 season.
They will franchise and then trade him.
Or they will agree to a contract extension with the 25-year-old, an unlikely proposition at this point.
Feb. 20 is the first day NFL teams are permitted to franchise one player before he reaches free agency. March 5 is the deadline. At 4 p.m. on March 13 the league year starts and players with four or more years of service who are not under contract are eligible to become unrestricted free agents.
Jackson, who signed a four-year, $3 million deal as a rookie in 2008, will not reach the open market because the Eagles are expected to franchise him. The receiver would stand to earn approximately $9.5 million - nearly $9 million more than he made in base salary last season - if he played next season under the tag.
Jackson said immediately following the season finale that he would be fine with the franchise designation. While he declined to answer that same question nine days ago while in Indianapolis for the Super Bowl, sources close to the receiver said that he would not balk at signing the Eagles' one-year tender.
The Eagles' motivations for franchising Jackson are clear. For one, they would retain a dynamic receiver - one who is a vital part of their offense - for what could be a Super Bowl-or-bust season. Jeffrey Lurie and Andy Reid have already stressed continuity, with the Eagles owner keeping Reid and with the coach keeping most of his staff in place.
Jackson's play slipped some last season, partly due to his distraction over his contract, but he still caught 58 passes for 961 yards and four touchdowns. His deep routes and ability to take multiple defenders often opened up the Eagles offense underneath.
But a price tag of nearly $10 million - franchised players are paid the average of the top five at their position - could impel the Eagles to franchise Jackson with the intent of trading him.
Jackson's worth is difficult to define. He can score from almost anywhere and in a variety of ways. But when the Eagles advance into the red zone and the field compresses, his production slips dramatically. Last season, he caught just two passes for 14 yards and one touchdown inside the 20.
Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker, a potential free agent, caught 17 passes for 133 yards and six TDs in the red zone. The Saints' Marques Colston (10-97-4), the Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe (7-49-3) and the Chargers' Vincent Jackson (6-29-4) - all possible free agents - also had better numbers than Jackson in the red zone.
The Eagles already have a pretty good red zone receiver in Jeremy Maclin, and tight end Brent Celek and running back LeSean McCoy are viable receiving options close to the goal line.
Still, the team will need to replace Jackson with someone better than backup Riley Cooper if they choose to trade him. The above free agents are candidates, as are a number of second-tier wideouts and possibly one of a number of highly regarded draft prospects.
The Eagles have often said that any player is up for sale for the right offer, but Jackson could bring a significant return from any number of teams that are in need of a playmaker, especially one who stretches the field. Playoff teams like the Patriots, 49ers, and Ravens immediately come to mind.
While player-for-player trades are rare in the NFL, the Eagles could choose to fill a hole at linebacker or safety by parting with a player who plays a position the Eagles are deep in. Of course, the number of talented receivers on the market could make it difficult for the Eagles to find a partner.
While Jackson has said that he wants to remain an Eagle, a trade would open the door for the second-round pick to get the long-term deal he so covets. Any team willing to trade for Jackson would likely want to lock him up for more than one season.
The Eagles still hold negotiating rights to Jackson and still have the opportunity to work out a contract extension. But unless Jackson and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, drastically drop their asking price - believed to be in the five-year, $50 million range - that proposition is unlikely as the Eagles have typically been steadfast in negotiating.
That doesn't preclude the two sides from agreeing on a new deal after Jackson is franchised. Michael Vick was franchised last year and earned a long-term extension in August. But having a starting quarterback in the last year of a contract is a lot different.
If the Eagles don't like what other teams are offering for Jackson they'll gladly bring him back for another season. But what about next offseason when he's eligible to become a free agent again and the Eagles face a similar situation?
They may just franchise him again.