As we head into the NFL Scouting Combine, where the Eagles will meet with Drew Rosenhaus in a last-ditch effort to negotiate a new contract for DeSean Jackson, there are some who feel the team should not place the franchise tag on Jackson if an agreement can't be reached -- or at all.
Jackson is carrying some baggage right now. He's coming off a down year, his attitude has been increasingly called into question, and nobody is sure how a 5-10, 175 lbs. receiver will hold up as time marches forward. Meanwhile, there is a crowded field of free agent receivers, including quite a few Pro Bowlers, who the Eagles could pursue if they only decided to let DJacc walk.
Whether or not that would be wise is the source of some debate, but we suppose you could start with who would be a candidate to replace him. After the jump, we rank 10 free agents who could take DeSean's place, how realistic it is they come to Philly, and whether or not it is actually an upgrade. Keep in mind, the rankings are specific to the Eagles and DeSean Jackson, so Wes Welker doesn't rate very high here. We explain.
1. Dwayne Bowe
A near certainty to be franchise tagged, Bowe is somewhat underrated despite being considered one of the top free agent wide receivers. His 2010 numbers were almost identical to this season, except he scored 15 touchdowns the year prior. He's managed to rack up nearly 5,000 yards and scored 36 touchdowns in his five-year career while playing without a decent or even competent quarterback much of the time. He has elite talent and size, but does not appear to be going anywhere just yet.
2. Mike Wallace
Wallace is only a restricted free agent, which means the Steelers can match any offer sheet. If they choose not to match, the team that signs Wallace trades their first round pick to Pittsburgh. While Wallace appears to be the better, safer option than Jackson, the Eagles can't afford to part with the 15th pick in the draft for a slight upgrade at wide receiver -- and there is even a chance Wallace gets hit with the franchise tag.
3. Marques Colston
It seems Colston always manages to fly under the radar when we talk about premier players, but if the Eagles were to go out and sign another wide receiver, he is my favorite (available) big name option. Colston averages more receptions, yards, and even touchdowns per season than Vincent Jackson, and he's been plain more consistent over his six-year career. What he lacks in explosive athleticism, he makes up for in size and hands. Some suggest his success could be a product of playing with Drew Brees, and he has lengthy history of injuries, but he's a guy I would be willing to take a chance on.
4. Vincent Jackson
The other Jackson draws an interesting parallel to the Philly version. Obviously, Vincent is a much bigger target, and therefore more versatile in the red zone. However, his career numbers are not significantly better. Vincent's single-season career high for receptions is 68; Desean's is 62. Vincent's career-high yards: 1,167; DeSean's: 1,156. Vincent's TD's: 9; DeSean's: 9. I still prefer his size, but he's older, and Rotoworld estimates he'll receive a five-year deal worth $55 million. That is an expensive, long-term commitment to a relatively minor upgrade over DJacc.
5. Steve Johnson
Our friends over at Bleeding Green Nation have stated that Jackson should be looking for a contract similar to whatever Johnson receives from Buffalo -- if he's retained. Like Jackson, Johnson has demonstrated a tendency to develop the dropsies, and his showboating antics often get him in trouble on the field. Johnson's not as much of a big-play threat though, which makes Jackson the more dynamic of the two. It's still a fair comparison on some levels, but the Birds would be better off with their own guy if Johnson reaches free agency. At least Jackson knows the system.
6. Wes Welker
Welker is an interesting case in that he obviously has far better numbers than Jackson, but in terms of pure talent, he's not on the same level. Welker has mostly made his living in New England lining up in the slot, or working short and intermediate routes all over the field. There's nothing wrong with that, and he's the best in the business at it, but Jackson is better for the Eagles' vertical version of the West Coast offense. Plus, observers believe the Patriots will franchise him.
7. Reggie Wayne
After a long and storied career, Wayne appears to be winding down. Last season's numbers can be pinned on poor play under center, but his yards per catch and touchdowns have been trending down for a few years now. He might have a few more productive seasons left in the tank, but no way he is a viable replacement for Jackson.
8. Brandon Lloyd
We're very surprised Lloyd has been rated as highly as he has. This is a player who has exactly one great season in a nine-year NFL career, and he recently expressed interest in once again playing for the only offensive coordinator who has been able to get the best out of him. That would be Josh McDaniels, who is back in New England, so Lloyd might as well be off the market. Regardless, he makes for a risky signing anyplace else.
9. Plaxico Burress
At this stage of his career, Burress appears to be just a situational player. That doesn't mean the Eagles couldn't sign him for a red zone target, where he really excelled with the Jets last season. However, he's certainly no replacement for what Jackson brings to the table.
10. Randy Moss
At one point, Moss was undoubtedly the best receiver in the league, and easily was the greatest deep threat of all time, but those days are behind Moss. He bounced between three teams in 2010, in part due to attitude problems, and sat out all of last season after he failed to put up any meaningful numbers in any situation.
Strike Bowe and Wallace from the board, as they won't be available for a reasonable price (or at all), and the only two players who might be considered a clear-cut upgrade for the Eagles are Marques Colston and Vincent Jackson. Neither of them are elite, both of them surrounded by question marks.
The price tag isn't much better. VJax will land an expensive, long-term contract for production that doesn't far supersede DJacc. If one estimate is right, it will be more per year than DeSean earns on the franchise tag. Colston presumably will also make bank somewhere in the same neighborhood as DeSean, though it could be slightly more reasonable.
That probably doesn't change anybody's mind, as part of the discussion seems to be based on a backlash toward DeSean, but the one-year franchise tender still seems like the best way to go. Rather than pick over some other team's scraps, and pay huge money for moderate upgrades, they can keep their own guy for at least one more season, then draft and begin to mold their own replacement.
Player bios and stats screen caps courtesy of NFL.com player pages.