DeSean Jackson’s exit from Philadelphia and subsequent signing with division rival Washington came at a curious time. Under the watchful eye of new head coach Chip Kelly, Jackson turned in his best pro season to date, racking up 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns on 82 receptions last season, living up to the new contract he received in 2012 with a Pro Bowl appearance.
A partnership between the lightning quick wideout and innovative offensive mind looked like it’d be fruitful for years to come, both on the field and for fantasy owners. So when the Eagles parted ways with Jackson in March, it signaled a belief of the coaching staff: Philadelphia Can Still Win Even Without DeSean Jackson. I’m inclined to agree with them.
To be fair to Jackson, the Eagles improving after jettisoning the Cal product is more of a side effect than a direct result of his release. Deep threats of his caliber don’t exactly grow on trees, and his stretching of the defense helped open up opportunities for players like Riley Cooper, another player who performed at a personal peak last season. The benefit of cutting Jackson all circles back to one thing — flexibility.
Off the field, cutting Jackson saved the Eagles a significant amount of money going forward. The five-year, $48.5 million extension Jackson signed in 2012 was gratuitously back-loaded, so much so that Philadelphia only ended up paying out about $18 million worth of the deal. That’s a nice bonus for Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, but it’s the salary cap savings that matter most. By parting ways with Jackson now, the Eagles saved $6.8 million on this year’s cap and eliminate $12 million and $10.5 off the books 2015 and 2016.
Cap management is important for every NFL team, especially so for a budding team like the Eagles. The Birds will have major decisions to make over the next couple seasons regarding several talented young players, most notable among them Nick Foles. If last season’s breakthrough performance proves not to be an outlier, Foles will be in line for a big-money extension as soon as 2015, when his rookie deal is set to expire. That’s before considering future deals for weapons like Jeremy Maclin, who bet on himself by signing a one-year deal with the Eagles this offseason.
Preserving cap space also provides opportunities to take advantage of the mistakes other franchises make. In recent seasons, division rivals in Washington and Dallas have hovered near the threshold, forcing them to make tough decisions and limiting their ability to bring in impact free agents. Being able to throw around an extra million or two ensures that the Eagles have a competitive advantage when push comes to shove.
The real concern for the Eagles, though, is whether the offense will keep humming without Jackson taking the top off opposing defenses. Cap preservation is all well and good, but on-field results are ultimately what players and coaches are judged on. Thankfully, the Eagles are well-prepared to compensate for the loss of Jackson, and combination of internal growth and recent additions should carry them through.
In regards to the former, second-year tight end Zach Ertz is primed for a breakout after a season spent learning the ropes. Pass catchers often face a steep development curve, and having an experienced Brent Celek on board allowed Kelly to bring Ertz along slowly in 2013. All four of Ertz’s touchdowns — plus a bonus TD in the Eagles-Saints playoff showdown — came in the season’s second half.
As told to Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com, Kelly’s belief is that the ability for a receiver to beat one-on-one coverage is among the most pivotal traits in his offense: “One-on-one coverage is a big deal for us. It’s a big deal in this league. We are always looking for a guy that can exploit those matchups. Anybody we are going to look at at wide receiver from the future here on is – what is your ability to get open in single coverage?”
Exploiting matchups was Ertz’s big selling point coming out of Stanford. He’s a fluid athlete — standing 6-5 and 250 pounds — that can get separation on the line of scrimmage or split out wide in certain sets. Philadelphia didn’t spend a second-round pick for him on accident. They will expect him to be a big part of the offense going forward.
There are also a gaggle of players that were brought in to help pick up the slack; draftees Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff, veteran back Darren Sproles and a returning Maclin give the Eagles a deeper, if unproven set of weapons for Foles to target.
The talent level may not be as high following the loss of a Pro Bowler, but spreading it across multiple players and positions fits better with Kelly’s offensive mantra of exploiting weaknesses. Last season, a quick check down to an open Jason Avant put the ball in the hands of an aging, limited player that wasn’t expected to do much after the catch. Now that ball might be thrown to Huff, a faster player that can make things happen in space.
Having a player like Sproles also gives a mad scientist like Kelly the opportunity to mix and match his formations. With two outstanding receiving backs in the super-shifty LeSean McCoy and Sproles, Kelly can toy with two-back sets, fake screen plays and even more pre-snap movement, using misdirection to keep defenses on their heels. We saw Kelly go as far as having just three down lineman between the hashmarks, so there’s no doubt he’ll be able to take advantage of a bigger toolbox going forward.
From a pure record perspective, it’s quite possible that the Eagles take a step back this season. Even with Jackson, having to play a division winner’s schedule on top of drawing the NFC West would have made it a challenge for them to win double-digit games for a second season in a row. The NFL’s cyclical nature makes sustained success difficult to repeat.
Jackson’s release was made with the big picture in mind, so even with Jackson returning to Philadelphia for the first time tonight, it’ll be hard to make predictions based off their first 60-minute matchup. Chip Kelly now has hand-picked players after succeeding with the leftovers from the Andy Reid era. If last year’s success was any indication, giving Kelly more influence will push the team back into the playoffs, and provide the Eagles with a deeper, more sustainable model for success.
Follow Kyle on Twitter at @kyleneubeck