We can debate the Philadelphia Eagles’ decision to release DeSean Jackson all you like, but what’s done is done. It’s not as if there wasn’t a plan in motion to replace the 27-year-old, three-time Pro Bowler, either.
Philadelphia spent second- and third-round draft picks on Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff, respectively, the former of whom is expected to contribute in the slot as a rookie. The club also sent a fifth-rounder to the New Orleans Saints for Darren Sproles, a running back that does most of his work in the passing attack. No doubt, the front office is also counting on a breakthrough year of sorts by Zach Ertz in the tight end’s second NFL season.
The goal seemed to be to replace Jackson’s 82 receptions, 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns in the aggregate.
But the key to making the Eagles’ plan succeed is Jeremy Maclin. That’s the same Jeremy Maclin who is returning from a torn ACL that erased his 2013 campaign. The same Jeremy Maclin who has never eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving in a season. The same Jeremy Maclin who has been living in the shadow of Jackson’s star since he was selected with the 19th overall pick in the ’09 draft.
Since training camp began, Maclin has been in and out of the lineup with little nagging injuries. He was a game-time decision for the Eagles’ preseason opener last week, and with this latest hamstring injury, his status is up in the air for Friday’s contest against the New England Patriots.
Whether he plays or not in an exhibition game is irrelevant. However, what if it were a regular season game that Maclin would be unavailable for? Who would replace his production?
Maclin is quite capable of filling a feature receiver role in the Eagles offense. It may not be 1,000 yards, but the 70 catches for 964 yards and 10 touchdowns he posted in 2010 wasn’t too shabby, either. When you consider the fact that almost every skill player in Philadelphia enjoyed a career year of sorts in Chip Kelly’s first season as head coach, there’s reason to believe the best is yet to come.
Maclin is more durable than people give him credit for as well. Prior to ‘13, he only missed five games over four seasons, and more than one game in a season just once. It seems these latest injuries, particularly those unrelated to the ACL, are an anomaly.
That being said, injuries can happen to anybody—and the Eagles appear to be wholly unprepared for losses at the wide receiver position.
Who takes over for Maclin as the primary receiver? Riley Cooper? He’s a No. 2 at best, and seemingly a replacement-level talent to boot. After one insanely productive five-week stretch that included three 100-yard performances and six touchdowns, Cooper went back to looking completely ordinary, averaging 3.6 catches and 49.7 yards with two touchdowns over the final seven games, including playoffs.
One thing seems certain, anyway, and that is Cooper is nobody’s No. 1. Furthermore, the fifth-year veteran hasn’t practiced since July.
So, if not Cooper to fill in for Maclin, then who? Matthews seems like the logical choice, as he’s most physically and athletically gifted of the bunch. The second-round pick out of Vanderbilt has been the star of training camp, showing off his size, speed, strength, hands, production, intelligence, you name it.
Then again, it’s often been said how difficult it can be for wide receivers to make significant contributions as rookies. Only four active players recorded 1,000 yard seasons in their first year in the NFL. Asking Matthews to move to the outside, when he’s been groomed to play the slot since his arrival in May, and then asking him to be the top option in Kelly’s offense is far from ideal.
Same goes for Huff, obviously, who’s much further behind in his development.
That leaves either Brad Smith, who has more rushing attempts than receptions through eight seasons in the NFL, or one of a host of receivers just trying to make the roster. Arrelious Benn has battled injuries the past two years while catching all of eight passes. Ifeanyi Momah hasn’t played in a meaningful game since September 2011 for Boston College, where he posted 39 career receptions. Fourth-year veteran Jeff Maehl has as many catches as years this would be for him the league.
Sproles and Ertz can help ease the pressure on a ragtag group of receivers. They will even line up as receivers themselves in some packages.
The Eagles still need a full-time presence along the perimeters, though, something that no matter what your opinion is of Maclin, he can adequately provide. As of now, he’s the only player on the roster with a body of work in that capacity.
If Maclin were to be out for an extended period of time, would the Eagles’ offense be able to function? To an extent, yes. There’s enough talent on that side of the ball—don’t forget LeSean McCoy—and Kelly is a bright enough schemer that they would be able to piecemeal something together.
Yet it’s hard to believe the offense would be anything resembling Kelly’s finest, not without anything resembling a feature receiver. Losing Maclin might not be fatal to the Birds' chances of winning, but it probably would prove crippling.