Sizing Up the Free Agent Wide Receivers

Sizing Up the Free Agent Wide Receivers

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.

DeSean Jackson
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.

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

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NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

Dragan Bender

Position: Power forward
Height: 7-1
Weight: 225
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Croatia’s latest basketball export is just 18 years old. He won’t turn 19 until November. Like a lot of teenagers, he’s hardly a fully finished product. The kid is raw, but his obvious potential figures to make him a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

Through 38 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes. He took 3.7 shots per game. He shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 33.8 percent from deep (on 2.0 attempts per game) and 71.9 percent from the line. He didn’t get to the line very often, by the way. In fact, he hardly got there at all, taking less than one attempt per game from the stripe.

But Bender’s appeal isn’t about what he is right now; it’s rooted in what he could become with time. There’s a reason why all 30 NBA teams sent someone to watch him play this year, according to DraftExpress. Investing in him could yield a significant return. Also, dude’s name is Dragan Bender. He was destined to become a pro athlete or conquer King’s Landing. Either way, good things ahead.

Strengths
Bender has been on the NBA’s projection radar for a while now. He’s worked hard to develop his shooting. Initially thought of as a non-shooter with wonky mechanics, Bender changed his stroke. It’s more compact and efficient now. Despite the small sample size, Bender had a 54.1 true shooting percentage and a 51.4 effective field goal percentage through 38 games this season.

He could pass more, but when he does he’s pretty savvy — particularly with the full-court outlet pass. Defensively, he’s not a rim protector, but he has a long wingspan (7-2) that should help him be a good pick-and-roll defender with time. In the increasingly switch-everything NBA, that’s a plus.

Also, did we mention his name is Dragan Bender? Donald Bender works in Croatian finance. Dave Bender has a nice B&B on Hvar Island. Dragan Bender is a potential NBA star.

Weaknesses
He’s reportedly put on some weight recently and worked hard to develop a better base, but he’s 7-1 and 225 pounds. Someone needs to feed him lots of sandwiches and protein shakes. Adding muscle for the long-slog NBA season will be important.

In addition to having a still-developing body and skill set, he hasn’t faced top-level international competition yet on a regular basis. He needs minutes against the best in the world, and in order to get those minutes he’ll have to refine his game – particularly his ball-handling and driving, which are still works in progress.

Unlike some other recent NBA imports (Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis among them), it’s probably going to take a while before Bender can be a consistent contributor in the league. Any team that takes him has to acknowledge the inherent time commitment.

How he’d fit with the Sixers 
If we’re talking about how he’d fit with the Sixers, who had a long-term plan and weren’t in a hurry to rush anything, the Sixers who embarked on an open-ended journey with no fixed timetable or end point, you could make a case for Bender (but not with the first overall pick). Five or seven years from now, Bender could be a polished product – an outside shooting threat with, perhaps, an expanded offensive game that allows him to put the ball on the floor and optimize his passing and scoring. You could imagine him growing defensively and creating mismatch problems. You could envision it – over time.

The question is whether these Sixers, who keep talking about transitioning from the rebuild into whatever comes next, are about to scrap the slow-and-low approach to cooking their roster in favor of adding on-court heat and off-court PR sizzle. If that’s the case, Bender wouldn’t fit well at all. Not to mention that taking Bender means adding another body to an already clogged frontcourt.

NBA comparison
Lots of people have drawn a parallel between Bender and Porzingis. That’s the easy, reflexive comparison. Both are tall, lanky stretch fours from a not dissimilar region of the world. But really that’s unfair to Bender. Porzingis declared for the NBA draft back in 2014, only to withdraw his name and wait until last year. The wait helped elevate him to more of a known commodity. At that point, he had played three seasons for Sevilla of Liga ACB in Spain, one of the best leagues in Europe that features some of the premiere international talent. Bender isn’t there yet in terms of experience, and their games aren’t one-to-one equivelants anyway. Bender might ultimately shake out as something closer to Andrei Kirilenko (if he can improve his handle) or Nikola Mirotic.

Draft projection
Top five. If he lasts any longer, it will be a surprise.

Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

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Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

Another day, another mailbag. 

I hope you're enjoying your Memorial Day Weekend. If you're reading this on the beach or at a BBQ, well done. 

Yesterday, I answered the first round of your questions about Doug Pederson, Brandon Spikes and the possibility of adding another running back. 

Today, I'll answer some more: 

At times, Jordan Matthews will still be in the slot this season. But he won't be there all the time. 

In Doug Pederson's offense, the receivers will move around quite a bit, which means we'll see Matthews lining up out wide on both sides and in the slot. He has the ability to do both. Either way, he's going to be on the field. He's clearly the Eagles best receiver and they're not going to take him off the field. 

I think there's a good chance we'll see some Josh Huff in the slot this year, which would make a ton of sense to me. Huff is at his best when he gets the ball in his hands and can make something happen. He's shifty enough to play in the middle. 

The idea that slot receivers are just small, shifty guys is outdated. It's all about matchups and Pederson won't be afraid to move his receivers around to find the best ones. 

Good question. I'll give you two names. One on offense and one on defense. 

Now, I didn't just pick the best players, I picked the best players with the biggest drop off to their backups. So on offense, it's Jason Peters and on defense it's Jordan Hicks. 

The scary thing: it wouldn't be shocking if either of these two go down in 2016. 

If Peters goes down, the Eagles will be fine at left tackle, because Lane Johnson will shift over. But that means either Dennis Kelly or Halapoulivaati Vaitai will come in. We all know what's happened in the past when Kelly comes in, and Vaitai is just a rookie. Not a ton of great depth at tackle. 

As for Hicks, we saw what happened to the defense when he went out last season. And this year, the team has virtually no depth at linebacker. If Hicks went down, either veteran special teams player Najee Goode or rookie Joe Walker would need to fill in. Yikes. 

I understand it's kind of a cop-out to just pick the top running back on the depth chart, but that's what I'm doing. I know Ryan Mathews has a lengthy injury history, but I can't see Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood or Kenjon Barner being the team's leading rusher. 

And when healthy, Mathews was the team's best running back in 2015, going for 539 yards on 106 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. If he manages to play 12 games this year, I think he'll be the team's leading rusher. 

Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

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Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

Mark Appel, whose fastball velocity was down considerably in the first inning of his last start, was placed on the disabled list Friday with a shoulder strain.

Appel, 24, is 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in eight starts for Triple A Lehigh Valley in his first year in the Phillies' system. He's struggled his last four times out, allowing 18 runs (15 earned) in 16⅓ innings on 20 hits and 11 walks.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2013 out of Stanford, Appel has had a disappointing pro career to this point. In 62 minor-league games (61 starts), he has a 5.04 ERA. The Phillies acquired him from Houston as part of the Ken Giles trade this past winter.

Appel's trip to the DL creates an opportunity for right-hander Ben Lively, who was promoted from Double A Reading to Triple A to take Appel's place in the IronPigs' rotation. Lively, acquired from the Reds for Marlon Byrd prior to the 2015 season, is 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA this season.

Rehab updates
Leftfielder Cody Asche and left-handed reliever Mario Hollands had their rehab assignments transferred to Triple A Lehigh Valley. 

Asche is 5 for 34 (.147) with two home runs and 12 strikeouts during his stints with Clearwater and Reading. 

Hollands has been sharp, posting a 1.04 ERA in 8⅔ innings with 12 strikeouts and one walk.