Citing league sources, the Inquirer's Jeff McLane is reporting the Eagles will apply the franchise tag to DeSean Jackson before the free agent period begins. Assuming he signs, Jackson is guaranteed a one-year deal worth the average of the five highest-paid wide receivers in the NFL, a figure estimated at nearly $10 million.
Should McLane's report come to fruition, the decision is no surprise. Jackson's production dipped in 2011 as the two-time Pro Bowler sulked throughout the season over an unresolved contract issue, but the team would be crazy to let his talent simply walk out the front door. The franchise tag restricts DJacc's freedom to negotiate with other clubs, while leaving the front office a measure of flexibility with respect to their next move.
So it's not as much a matter of should they or will they franchise DeSean -- that much is almost a no-brainer*. Rather, should the Eagles use the franchise tag as a means to re-sign Jackson for one or multiple years, or should they use the provision to hold him up until they can at least trade him.
Most importantly, what will they do? Full analysis of this story after the jump as we kick off our free agency coverage.
MOVING ON IS HARD TO DO
A few months back, when DJacc was dropping practically as many footballs as he was hauling in, a tag and trade looked like it might be the most promising option. Once a player develops a pattern of putting the rock on the carpet, while ducking any and all contact, there is always some concern as to whether he can get his head or his heart back in the game.
The Eagles were also in a free fall at the time, and there was a sense that blowing this team up might be a possibility. For better or worse, that fire is extinguished.
The other problem with the idea: it turns out the free agent market is loaded with talent at wide receiver. Some of the great players scheduled to have unrestricted rights, like DeSean, inevitably will wind up franchised, but plenty of others will be priced to move. With so many Pro Bowlers and budding superstars readily available, what would compel a team to exchange high draft picks or starting-caliber players instead?
Not that it completely precludes a swap from taking place, but the front office would need to significantly reduce its expectations on the return. Rather than trade Jackson for less than he's worth -- here's where the "almost a no-brainer" comes in -- it actually makes more sense to let him leave, and pursue his replacement against 31 other clubs.
And that is an alternative that merits consideration, or mention anyway. Jackson is one of the most explosive players in the NFL, fourth among active players with 17.8 yards per reception and second in punt return touchdowns among active players. He's also an unconventional target, neither imposing in size nor somebody who will catch 90 to 100 passes a season. From that standpoint, the Eagles could conceivably upgrade with the right addition, perhaps a guy like Vincent Jackson.
Of course, that is highly speculative. DeSean's ability to stretch the field is unique. It creates match-up problems in the secondary, and prevents defenses from keying on LeSean McCoy. When do you ever see the opponent's safety lined up closer than 15 yards to the line of scrimmage? This is not something easily replicated.
Finally, factor in continuity. If next season is actually Super Bowl or bust for Andy Reid, the volatility involved with bringing another wide receiver into a new scheme may prove to be counterproductive. Jackson knows the offense, knows what is expected of him, and bringing him back eliminates any chance the front office swings and misses in free agency.
LEVEL OF COMMITMENT
Anybody who still holds out hope the Eagles will come to terms with DJacc on a lengthy extension this offseason needs to open their eyes and see that ship has sailed for the time being. It could return to port at a later date, but after this past season, and with the future directions of the franchise uncertain, it would be flat out irresponsible to commit to a malcontent whose numbers experienced a significant decline.
Just to briefly summarize how we reached this point, Jackson made less than $1 million each of the last two seasons. Due to special rules that were in effect to prevent a lockout, the front office could not easily extend his rookie deal in 2010, and last summer the two sides apparently talked, but negotiations were described as being far apart. Jackson pouted (somewhat understandably), and 2011 became something of a lost year.
As lost years go, Jackson's 961 yards weren't too bad, but when you're asking to be paid in line with the best in the game, that's not cutting it.
The good news is, DeSean claims he has no problem with the franchise tag. Many players see it as a "slap in the face," because while they earn a huge lump sum of cash up front, they still take on a lot of risk without the benefit of guaranteed money in future years. In DJacc's case, there have been rumors about his fiscal well-being, and he didn't do himself any favors on the field toward landing mega bucks in a crowded free agency, so the tag might be the best outcome until he rehabs his image.
Some might say the Eagles are overpaying even at $10 million, but a team cannot truly overpay on a one-year contract. Either DeSean lives up to the lofty expectations he created, and the Birds get their money's worth, or he continues falling back to earth, and he becomes a free agent again in 2013. The dollar amount is only significant when taken over a period of time.
Besides, when you consider how grossly underpaid Jackson has been compared to his peers, you could argue he deserves to earn slightly more than he is worth.
When you look at it that way, the franchise tag is the only way to go, because the front office gets the best of every world. They maintain continuity in their starting lineup in a probable make or break year for Andy Reid, avoid getting locked into a long-term extension with a player who underperformed in 2011, and still manage to keep DeSean Jackson relatively happy for the immediate future with a hefty payday.
If they intend to keep him when next year rolls around, they can even franchise him again, then work out an extension.
Don't count on the Eagles resting on that small comfort though. Chances are if the organization doesn't feel he's worth his demands now, they won't be any closer to caving later. With a healthy amount of picks in this April's draft, and a limited number of immediate, front-line needs, a franchise that has its eye on the future would most likely use a relatively early selection on a wide receiver, and begin grooming Jackson's eventual successor.
Just in case, of course. DJacc is totally going to be here for a long time (wink).