Now that DeSean Jackson is in camp and seems to have a good attitude about helping the Eagles get to the Super Bowl, much of the discussion has shifted to what he's worth.
It's a difficult question to answer because Jackson is unlike any other player in the league. And his true value seems to be a polarizing topic, both locally and nationally.
Earlier this offseason, the Jets gave Santonio Holmes a five-year, $50M deal with a reported $24M guaranteed. Does Jackson deserve a similar deal? More? Less? Arguments have already been made on all three accounts.
Today, let's take a close examination of Jackson's value - what he's done in his first three years in the league, how it compares to other receivers and what might be in store for years to come.
This is an easy one to examine. Jackson's explosiveness sets him apart from every other receiver in the league.
The numbers in 2010: 47 catches for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. But maybe most importantly, a league-leading 22.5 yards per catch.
How rare are those numbers? I went back to see how common it is for a receiver to have 45+ catches and average 22 yards per catch or more. It's happened exactly one other time in the last 20 seasons. In 1991, Falcons wide receiver Michael Haynes had 50 catches for 1,122 yards, averaging 22.4 yards per catch.
In three NFL seasons, Jackson has 56 catches of 20+ yards. By my count, that's the third-most, behind Houston's Andre Johnson (60) and Green Bay's Greg Jennings (58).
In other words, he's absolutely an elite player when you talk about big plays and explosiveness.
HOLES IN JACKSON'S GAME
Friend of the blog Bill Barnwell over at Grantland took a look yesterday and determined that Jackson needs to catch the ball more.
The Football Outsiders metric catch rate examines how often a receiver catches a ball thrown to him. Jackson has caught 172 of the 332 passes thrown to him in the last three seasons for a catch rate of 51.8 percent, 47th in the NFL.
However, I would expect Jackson to rate poorly in this metric. He's going deep play after play. LeSean McCoy had a catch rate of 87 percent because most of his receptions came near the line of scrimmage.
While Barnwell concedes that fact and argues that Jackson's catch rate doesn't compare favorably to other downfield threats, in my estimation, none of the receivers who fared better are as effective as him.
The other criticism with Jackson, which is fair, is that he drops the ball too much. Per Football Outsiders, Jackson dropped 11 balls last season, the fourth-worst drop rate in the NFL. Pro Football Focus had him down for 12 drops and the worst drop rate in the NFL.
But here's the problem with drops. They are completely subjective. In other words, two people can watch the exact same play, and one might consider an incompletion a drop, while the other may not.
I charted drops last season and had Jackson down for seven. STATS.com charted drops and had him down for fewer than seven. JimmyK over at Bleeding Green Nation did an excellent job of pulling together video of the 11 drops, and he counted eight.
The bottom line? Jackson does need to catch the ball more. But his drops are not enough of an issue to offset the positive things he does. I'd argue that it's almost like focusing on Ryan Howard's strikeouts or batting average instead of his home runs.
Jackson will likely never be an 80 catch/year type receiver. But the guys who catch that many balls probably won't be producing 20+ yards per reception either. In fact, among the top 15 players in catches last year, only Denver's Brandon Lloyd averaged more than 15 yards per reception.
All that means is there are different types of receivers.
Jackson is listed at 5-10, 175 pounds. His size and frame are part of the reason he slipped to the second round in the 2008 draft. Jackson mentions it constantly, and as yet another athlete looking for people to doubt his abilities, he uses the questions about his size as motivation.
In the past two years, Jackson has suffered two concussions. One against the Redskins in 2009, and another against the Falcons in 2010. Last year's collision with Dunta Robinson is undoubtedly one of the reasons Jackson wants his money now. He realizes how quickly everything can be taken away from him.
But, as I mentioned when talking about Michael Vick earlier this season, predicting injuries can be a dangerous proposition. Even with the concussions, guess how many games Jackson has missed in the past three seasons because of injury? Two.
That's two of a possible 52.
Meanwhile, there's Houston's Andre Johnson. At 6-3, 223, he's what we think of when we hear the term physical specimen. Well, Johnson missed three games last year due to injury. In the past four seasons, he's missed 10 games and has played in 54 of a possible 64.
Is it fair to be concerned about Jackson's size? Sure. But through his first three seasons, Jackson has held up pretty well.
VALUE TO THE EAGLES
Here are Jackson's per/game numbers last season (regular season) in Eagles' wins and Eagles' losses.
Think big plays to Jackson were a key to the Eagles' offense having success last season?
All eight of Jackson's touchdowns (including rushing and returning) came in Eagles wins. They were undefeated when he scored.
There's also the Jeremy Maclin factor. I've heard the argument that Jackson's value is diminished because Maclin could easily step in and be the No. 1 receiver. I'd argue the other way - that the two complement each other well.
We only have a small sample size when looking at games Jackson didn't play. Last year, against the Titans, the Eagles' offense put up 19 points without Jackson, its third-lowest total of the season. Kevin Kolb looked for Maclin time and again. He was targeted 12 times, but came up with just five catches for 42 yards. Keep in mind Kolb struggled in that game, but still, Maclin didn't exactly set the world on fire without Jackson.
In 2009, the Eagles' offense scored 27 points against the Falcons when Jackson sat out. Maclin had four catches for 83 yards.
The point is, Jackson opens up a lot of things for this offense: running room for Michael Vick when he takes off, underneath routes for Maclin, Jason Avant and Brent Celek, and so on. His speed is something that defenses have to focus on because one slip-up can lead to an easy touchdown.
JACKSON VS. HOLMES
I mentioned Holmes' contract above, and the truth is Drew Rosenhaus can absolutely argue that Jackson deserves a similar deal.
Here are the per/game numbers the last three years:
||TDs (Total Receiving)
One thing you have to include with Jackson is how he directly affects the game in other ways. He has four punt returns for touchdowns and three rushing scores in the last three seasons. That's an extra seven TDs, bringing his total up to 24.
Meanwhile, Holmes has earned the reputation of being a clutch performer after his 9-catch, 131-yard performance in the 2008 Super Bowl. He also has six touchdowns in seven career postseason games. That certainly plays a factor in the comparison.
Overall, though, Jackson has averaged 53.6 yards receiving per game in five playoff games. Holmes has averaged 57.4. The edge clearly goes to Holmes, but it's not as glaring as you might think.
I mentioned Jackson's two concussions above. Holmes also suffered a concussion in 2008.
Jackson has had maturity issues - the premature celebrations and the slur he used during an offseason radio appearance. On the other hand, he's also tried to raise awareness about pancreatic cancer and fought against bullying.
Holmes was suspended four games last season for violating the league's substance abuse policy. If he violates it again, he'd miss the entire season. The Steelers, who have held on to Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison despite their issues, decided to trade Holmes in 2010. He was coming off a 79-catch, 1,248-yard season and was only 26. Holmes also had a Super Bowl MVP in his pocket.
In other words, the argument that Jackson's off-the-field issues are more concerning than Holmes' holds no weight.
The one factor we often forget with Jackson is his age. It seems like he's been around for awhile, but he won't even turn 25 until December. Of the 17 players that had 1,000 yards receiving or more last season, only the Giants' Hakeem Nicks was younger than Jackson.
I'm not sure what kind of deal Rosenhaus is asking for, but he has a lot of material to work with (I'll even let him present this blog post to Joe Banner if he asks nicely).
As I mentioned above, something in the ballpark of Holmes' contract is reasonable, unless the Eagles want to argue that the Jets just made a terrible deal.
Last year, the Cowboys signed Miles Austin to a seven-year, $57M deal with a reported $18M guaranteed.
The most interesting parts of Jackson's negotiation will be the length of the contract and the guaranteed money. How long do the Eagles think he can maintain the level of play he's produced in his first three seasons? At what age will Rosenhaus want Jackson to have one more shot at a big contract after this one expires?
And how much of a risk are the Eagles taking with the amount of money they're willing to guarantee?
The final aspect is leverage. Holmes was an unrestricted free agent when he signed his deal. In other words, Holmes' camp could go to the Jets and say other teams were willing to offer certain things. Jackson isn't there yet. He's under contract through 2011. In one respect, the Eagles gain a slight advantage because of that.
On the other hand, do they really want to see what Jackson would command on the open market after 2011? No way. In the long-term, it could mean losing one of the most explosive players in the NFL and a key part of their offense. In the short-term, it could mean a distracted Jackson in a year when the Birds are "all in" and looking to bring the franchise its first-ever Super Bowl.
For those reasons, I think a deal will get done. It makes too much sense for both sides. But by all accounts, given the parties involved (Jackson, Rosenhaus, Banner, Howie Roseman), this could be one of the more intriguing negotiations the Eagles have been a part of in recent years.
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