Was DeSean's year an elite one?

DeSean Jackson caught 47 balls for 1,056 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns last season. (Ron Cortes/Staff File Photo)

Before the Eagles fire anyone else let’s take a look at another huge decision they’ll soon face: how to treat DeSean Jackson and what is sure to be a demand for a sizable contract.

We went over the scenario a few days ago in our look back at 2010 and look ahead to 2011. To sum up: right now the unsettled CBA provides a convenient -- and legitimate -- excuse for not giving Jackson a new deal. He has clearly outplayed his original contract, though, and once the CBA gets worked out, and the Eagles will have to face this situation head on. If they want to keep Jackson, they have to pay him more. But how much more?

The gut instinct of many is to just pay the man as an elite receiver. After all, if you look at his 210 yards against the Cowboys and game-winning punt return against the Giants, you can practically hand two wins to Jackson. He’s a Pro Bowl receiver with top-flight playmaking ability. But compared to other Pro Bowl receivers, he is also stunningly inconsistent.

Over the critical last five regular season games and the one playoff game, Jackson’s reception numbers were: 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 2.

To be fair, he turned those four catches against the Cowboys into 210 breathtaking yards. And there, in a nutshell, is the debate: do those huge plays merit paying Jackson like a top wide receiver, as Jackson and agent Drew Rosenhaus will surely expect? Or will the Eagles balk because for every game Jackson wins, there seems to be one where he is quiet?

Some numbers to consider: Jackson averaged 22.5 yards per catch, best of any player with any significant number or receptions. But he was tied for 71st in total receptions. Jackson had his chances: he was second on the Eagles in targets, but fourth in receptions, behind Jeremy Maclin, LeSean McCoy and Jason Avant. He ranked 98th in the NFL in catches per target.


Whose defense will be better in 2011?

When you look at Jackson’s game-by-game reception numbers along with those of other 2011 Pro Bowlers, he had quiet days far more often than his Hawaii-bound peers. Here are game-by-game catch totals for Jackson and the rest of the Pro Bowl receivers: Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, Brandon Lloyd, Dwayne Bowe, Roddy White, Calvin Johnson and Greg Jennings.

  Wayne A. Johnson Lloyd Bowe White C. Johnson Jennings Jackson
  7 3 5 1 13 4 5 4
  7 12 3 4 7 4 3 4
  4 4 6 2 5 6 2 5
  15 DNP 11 2 7 6 2 3
  6 5 5 6 5 4 2 2
  6 8 4 3 6 5 6 1(injured)
  4 7 1 3 11 9 6 DNP
  11 4 7 5 4 1 6 7
  3 9 6 13 12 10 7 2
  8 4 6 6 9 6 7 5
  5 9 4 13 5 4 5 2
  14 6 2 0 7 3 6 3
  4 9 3 1 8 1 4 4
  5 6 4 2 7 10 4 3
  3 DNP 5 6 3 4 7 2
  9 DNP 5 5 6 DNP 4 DNP
Games with 3 or fewer catches 2 1 4 8 1 3 4 7
Games with 5 or more catches 11 9 9 7 14 7 9 3

Even factoring in Jackson’s injury, he also had fewer yards-per-game than any Pro Bowler except Bowe and Calvin Johnson.

You could make a good argument that Jackson is an example of quality over quantity: he might not make a ton of catches, but when he does get the ball, something huge often happens. He ranked third in the NFL in catches of 20 or more yards and catches that went for 40 or more. But in second place in both of those categories was Lloyd, who managed to make big plays and provide a week-in week-out production: he had 77 catches to Jackson’s 47.

Big receptions can turn a game around in a flash, but as we saw in the Eagles Wild Card loss, flash isn’t always what you need. Green Bay won that game with crucial third down conversions. A receiver who can be counted on to make regular contributions can help move his team even when the big plays aren't working.

Two final notes: in Jackson’s favor you also have to consider what he opens up for the rest of the offense. The Eagles got their biggest play of the game against the Packers when Jackson streaked deep, drawing a safety and opening up the middle of the field for Maclin to make a 44 yard catch and run. Would the Eagles other weapons be as dangerous without Jackson? Who else can stretch the field as nicely for Michael Vick’s huge arm?

But on the other hand on a crucial third-and-six, do you expect the Eagles to go Jackson, or Jason Avant? Isn’t that part of the role of a truly elite receiver?

The point is not to say the Eagles shouldn’t keep Jackson – there are excellent arguments to pay him -- but it’s not a simple decision. In a league with a salary cap, how much will the Eagles commit to an explosive but inconsistent receiver, and will it be enough to keep him? Do they value his explosiveness and pay him like an elite wide receiver? Or do they consider Jackson a valuable piece of the offense – but not the centerpiece -- and pay him accordingly?

It’s a difficult answer. The actual debate might be months away, but it’s surely looming, and both sides will plenty of ammunition.

Download our NEW iPhone/Android app for even more Birds coverage, including app-exclusive videos and analysis. Get it here. On sale for the rest of the season for just $0.99!