Replacing DeSean: Don’t sleep on Jeremy Maclin

Replacing DeSean: Don’t sleep on Jeremy Maclin

82 receptions, 1,332 yards receiving, nine touchdowns; that’s what the Philadelphia Eagles must replace in the NFL’s No. 2 offense after the release of DeSean Jackson. Where’s it supposed to come from? Not necessarily from any one player. In this four part series, we examine whose roles will increase as a result of the move.

Is it possible we’ve all forgotten how good Jeremy Maclin really is?

Up until last season, there was legitimate debate as to whether the 2009 first-round pick is actually a superior all-around wide receiver to DeSean Jackson. There was even some chatter that Maclin might be a better fit for Chip Kelly’s offense.

Then disaster struck. Maclin suffered a torn ACL early during the first full day of training camp. His season erased, the onus fell on Jackson to replace Maclin’s production.

In 2014, the shoe will be on the other foot. This time, Maclin is tasked with filling the void left by Jackson’s release.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand perfectly the concerns over hanging your hat on a No. 1 receiver coming off of knee surgery. And it is true that in the four seasons Maclin has been on the field for, he’s never managed to eclipse 1,000 yards receiving—although he has reached 1,000 yards from scrimmage.

Let’s take the second concern first, that Maclin hasn’t passed some magical statistical baseline that separates the No. 1s from the No. 2s. Before we start making excuses for the guy, let’s look back on his breakout season of 2010.

Among wideouts, Maclin’s 70 receptions ranked 19th. His 964 yards ranked 18th. 10 touchdowns were tied for 7th. 13 receptions of 20-plus yards, t-21st. 45 receptions for first down, 19th.

Those numbers would’ve been good enough to make him a No. 1 receiver on half the teams in the league. In Philly, he was always kind of viewed as 1b with Jackson around. This could be Maclin’s chance to step out of the three-time Pro Bowler’s shadow.

So what happened the next two seasons?

Health issues partially derailed his 2011 campaign. A mysterious illness—at one point thought to be lymphoma—had Maclin laid up for most of the offseason and would cause him to miss training camp. He was in uniform Week 1, but had lost weight and muscle mass in the meantime. An injury cost him three games later on as well.

All things considered, Maclin still posted a quality line with 63 receptions, 859 yards and five touchdowns. He was on pace to break 1,000 had he played all 16 games.

2012 wasn’t merely a disappointing season for Maclin. The Eagles finally bottomed out under Andy Reid, a 4-12 record resulting in the head coach’s firing after 14 years. The offense regressed as Jackson, All-Pro running back LeSean McCoy, starting quarterback Michael Vick and three members of the offensive line all missed extensive time due to injuries.

Maclin still finished with 69 receptions, 857 yards and seven touchdown catches in 15 games, making him Philadelphia’s leader in all three categories.

Those figures aren’t going to make anybody forget about Jackson anytime soon. Then again, there is plenty of reason to believe Maclin could revert to his 2010 form under Kelly, if not exceed his breakout season entirely.

Why? Because practically everybody wearing midnight green (minus 30-year-old Jason Avant) posted some form of career high in Kelly’s offense during the head coach's first season on the Eagles sideline.

Jackson’s 82 catches and 1,332 were by far personal bests. Riley Cooper went from being a reserve who was in danger of being cut in training camp to viable No. 2 receiver. Brent Celek’s 15.7 yards per catch were 2.6 yards better than his previous high. McCoy won his first his NFL rushing championship. Nick Foles came out of nowhere to lead the league in passer rating.

It stands to reason Maclin would benefit from Kelly’s presence, too. Without Jackson there to take away targets, he’ll certainly have more opportunity than ever.

And, no, Maclin does not need the extra attention Jackson draws from defenses on the opposite side to be successful. Sure, Maclin is not quite as dangerous of a deep threat—although DBs would be wise not to sleep on his 4.4 speed—but he’s posted big days when Jackson was inactive in the past.

In the five games Jackson missed in 2012—four with Foles under center—Maclin recorded 28 receptions, 353 yards and three touchdowns. Project those numbers over a full season, and they work out to 89, 1,129 and nine.

It’s safe to say that kind of volume would go a long way toward replacing Jackson’s production.

Of course, there is still the issue of Maclin’s ACL. The truth is we have no real way of knowing how he’ll respond. What we do know is torn ACLs are not the career death sentence they once were, and most NFL players seem to recover fully even after experiencing more than one.

The fact that Maclin will only turn 26 this year should offer some hope, along with the knowledge that he will be 13 months into his rehabilitation by the time the season begins.

The good news is, as we’ll explore further in the coming days, it’s not all on Maclin to supplant Jackson’s production. That being said, as long as Maclin is healthy, it’s not as if every one of those 82 catches, 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns suddenly disappeared from the offense. In terms of pure numbers, the Eagles may not miss Jackson as much as we think.

Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

It feels appropriate with the season coming to an end and the recent struggles of the Phillies' entire pitching staff to again point out how consistent Jerad Eickhoff has been in 2016.

Tuesday's rain delay likely cost him a shot at reaching 200 innings — he's sitting on 191⅓ with one start left — but his season has obviously been a success whether or not he reaches that mark. 

Some may argue Odubel Herrera has been the Phillies' MVP this season, but I'd go Eickhoff. Maybe that's just based on the inconsistencies of his rotation mates, but there's real value in a guy who gives you six quality innings each time out. Eickhoff this season was basically John Lackey — a reliable mid-rotation workhorse with solid but unspectacular numbers.

ESPN's longtime prospect analyst Keith Law mentioned Eickhoff this week in an Insider post looking at players he judged incorrectly. Eickhoff and Cubs Cy Young candidate Kyle Hendricks were the first two pitchers mentioned.

In his assessment of what went wrong with his initial evaluation of Eickhoff, Law wrote:

"I hadn't seen Eickhoff in the minors and, based on what I'd heard about him, had him as a back-end starter, saying he had the repertoire to start but giving him a limited, back-end ceiling. Eickhoff had a good curveball with Texas. But the Phillies' staff has encouraged him to throw it more often, and it's been a difference-making pitch for him. His curve accounted for 40 percent of his swings and misses in 2016, and it's one of the most effective curveballs in MLB right now; that pitch alone has made him more than just a back-end starter, and he has been the Phillies' most valuable starter this year. He is probably a league-average, No. 3 starter going forward with the arsenal he has — average fastball, plus curveball, inconsistent slider that flashes plus but on which he makes too many mistakes — and with 4-WAR potential, given his durability."

Eickhoff's curveball was what made a lot of us take notice late last season. He used it to shut down some good lineups in September, and he finished 2015 with back-to-back seven-inning, 10-strikeout games against the Nationals and Mets.

This season, he grew up. He incorporated the slider more and that led him out of an early-season funk. Early in the year, hitters were laying off his curveball and swinging at any fastball near the zone because it's a hittable pitch. Once he started showing another breaking ball, the game plan for the opposition became more complicated.

There was nothing fluky about Eickhoff's 2016 season. He'll enter the final day of the season 11-14 with a 3.72 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. 

It's pretty startling to compare Eickhoff's numbers since joining the Phillies to Cole Hamels' with the Rangers. Have a look.

Hamels with the Rangers (44 starts): 3.42 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 2.8 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

Eickhoff with the Phillies (40 starts): 3.49 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 3.9 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

It's not an apples to apples comparison because Hamels has pitched about 40 more innings than Eickhoff in a tougher league and in a tougher ballpark. It doesn't mean that going forward they will be equals. It just means that over the last season and a half, their production has been close to equal.

Nobody would have expected a year ago that Eickhoff would be the best piece in that trade. But until Jorge Alfaro and Nick Williams graduate to the majors in full-time roles and produce, Eickhoff will be the unexpected centerpiece of that blockbuster deal with the Rangers.

He's a walking example of solid scouting and even better player development by the Phillies.

Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

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Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

CHESTER, Pa. — Union head coach Jim Curtin knows it may seem like a weird situation to some.

Early on Tuesday morning, as soccer fans around the area were just waking up, the Union issued a press release that stated that Tranquillo Barnetta would be leaving the team at the end of the 2016 season (see story)

There was no trade. No sale. No contract dispute. No off-the-field issues. 

It was simply a case of a player — a really good player — deciding before the end of the season that he wanted to say goodbye to MLS and finish his pro career with his hometown club in St. Gallen, Switzerland. 

“I think it’s unique maybe to the American public and fan bases that a guy announces it and there’s still [part of] a season left to play,” Curtin said during his weekly press conference. “I think it’s strange for everyone to hear it that way. But in Europe that’s kind of the norm. To get out ahead of it shows what kind of man and leader he is. He addressed the team and didn’t want it to be a situation where something leaked out. He’s a true pro. I’m honored to have coached him and I want to prolong it as long as I possibly can.”

In other American leagues, of course, a talented but aging player with Barnetta’s pedigree might drum up a bidding war to try to get one more good contract in free agency before he retires, perhaps using a strong playoff performance to do so. But, as Curtin alluded to, global soccer is a whole different animal. And Barnetta never planned to use his 2016 performance as a launching pad to a new deal with Philly or something bigger on a different MLS team.

His plan all along was to retire for the hometown club he cheered for as a kid — and he made sure he’d have the freedom to do so when he signed with the Union last summer.

“We offered several years but he was very content and adamant about taking an 18-month deal,” Curtin said. “A lot of people say they’re not about the money but Tranquillo truly means when he says it. He came here at a very big discount to what his value was in the European market. And he had a goal of playing for his hometown club, which I respect at the end of the day.”

If there’s any knock against Barnetta, it’s that he essentially treated MLS as a short-term project, a way to try something new after an illustrious career in Switzerland and Germany, to live in a different part of the world and see different cities throughout the United States.

But make no mistake, he earned that right and he never tried to hire his future ambitions. And even if his tenure with the Union will be a short one, it’s been very beneficial for both sides.

Barnetta, for instance, learned about the grueling travel demands in MLS and the more physical nature of the league compared to ones in Europe, all while showing the sublime skill that made him a three-time World Cup veteran for Switzerland.

And the Union leaned on his talent and leadership at the end of their disappointing 2015 season and throughout the entire 2016 campaign with Curtin calling him “the best player that ever wore a Philadelphia Union jersey.”

“He’s a great example for our young guys,” the Union coach added. “He’s got a close relationship with a lot of the veteran guys. And he’s just a pleasure to have in the locker room. He comes to work with a smile on his face but when it’s time to work, he’s the hardest worker there is. A true professional. And the pedigree is the highest we’ve ever had in this club.”

You can make the case that acquiring players with great pedigrees hasn’t always worked to the Union’s benefit (see: Mbolhi, Rais), but it’s hard to find any fault in the Barnetta deal, especially when you consider Philadelphia got him at a discount and that Curtin and technical director Chris Albright orchestrated the signing at a time when the franchise was in a state of flux and sporting director Earnie Stewart had yet to join the fold. 

For someone that’s played in three World Cups, the Champions League and one of the top leagues in Europe, Barnetta may not be the biggest name out there. But getting him when they did was still something of a coup for Philadelphia. And the benefits will likely be reaped for a long time to come as the Union followed last year’s Barnetta signing with a couple of big moves in the offseason and this summer’s long-term acquisition of U.S. national team starter Alejandro Bedoya — the combination of which has them thinking about the playoffs and a whole lot more even as Barnetta’s departure looms.

“It’s something we want to celebrate rather than pity and feel bad,” Curtin said. “We’re happy for the time we’ve had him here. And now we’re gonna make it last as long as we possibly can. The rest of the games out, in the pregame talk, we’ll say, ‘Let’s extend this thing as long as possible and use it as a rallying cry.’ You don’t want it to come to an end. And when it does come to an end, you want it to be a special moment.”

What kind of special moment?

“We want his last game with the Philadelphia Union to be an MLS Cup.”