Expectations for DeSean and the WRs

Expect Eagles WR DeSean Jackson to once again be one of the league's biggest deep threats in 2011. (Yong Kim/Staff file photo)

Over the next several days, I will go position-by-position and player-by-player to preview what could be in store for all 53 members of the current Philadelphia Eagles. Click here for the breakdown on the running backs. Today, we move on to the wide receivers, starting with...

DeSean Jackson - With the opener four days away, there is no new contract for the Eagles' explosive receiver. Jackson enters 2011 scheduled to make a base salary of $600,000 after having suffered concussions in each of the past two seasons. The question now is: How much of an effect will his contract situation have on Jackson's on-the-field performance?

In 2010, he led all receivers, averaging 22.5 yards per catch. And Jackson became one of only two receivers in the last 20 seasons to pile up 45+ receptions and average at least 22 yards per catch. Only Greg Jennings and Andre Johnson have had more catches of 20+ yards in the last three seasons. In Eagles wins last year, Jackson averaged 94.9 yards receiving and totaled eight touchdowns. In Eagles losses, he averaged 26.75 yards per game and failed to score. For all the questions about Jackson's durability, he's started 50 of a possible 52 games in his first three seasons.

So what's in store for Jackson in 2011? I have zero concern about him and Michael Vick not connecting on any deep balls in the preseason. In the 11 games that Vick started and finished last season, Jackson averaged 90.54 yards and over 25 yards per catch. Overall, his 75.4 yards per game average was ninth in the league, ahead of guys like Calvin Johnson (74.7) an Larry Fitzgerald (71.1). Obviously, quarterback play had something to do with that, but the number is impressive nonetheless.

Jackson will once again be one of the league's premier deep threats. He's a home run hitter, who opens up space for the Eagles' other playmakers. If he can cut down on his drops, Jackson's numbers should improve in 2011. Bodog has the over/under on his receiving yards at 1,000, and Football Outsiders projects 953.

There are of course other aspects of Jackson's game too. Seven of his 24 career touchdowns have come on special teams or running plays. The Eagles have listed Jackson as the punt returner for Week 1. He returned 20 punts last season, 29 in 2009 and 50 in 2008. We'll find out soon enough how often the Eagles put him back there this season.

Jeremy Maclin - The Eagles' third-year receiver had a major scare this offseason when he was tested for lymphoma. But it turned out he was instead dealing with some kind of virus. Maclin's back practicing and is expected to play in Week 1, even though he did not appear in any of the preseason games.

In 2010, Maclin led all Eagles wide receivers with 70 catches, 10 touchdowns and 45 first downs. Maybe most importantly, he had 27 catches for 404 yards against the blitz. No other Eagles receiver had more than 12 catches against the blitz. That will be important, considering how teams are likely to attack Vick this season.

Maclin also stood out in the red zone, scoring seven of his 10 touchdowns inside the opponent's 20.

He provides an excellent complement to Jackson. And while Maclin's not as explosive, he still averaged a respectable 13.8 yards per reception and had 13 plays of 20+ yards. Assuming he is at full strength, or close to it, to start the season, Maclin should take another step forward in his third year.

Jason Avant - As the loyal MTC readers know, I make it a point to recognize the little things Avant does throughout the course of a year that help the Eagles win. For example, even though he's in his sixth season and didn't have to worry about making the roster, Avant gave full effort as a blocker in the third preseason game, helping Ronnie Brown get to the end zone.

As a receiver, he set a career-high with 51 receptions in 2010. Avant totaled 573 yards and averaged 11.1 yards per catch. While he's looked at as the third receiver, Avant was pretty much a starter in 2010. In the playoff game against the Packers, he was on the field for 75.8 percent of the offensive plays, according to Pro Football Focus. And overall, he played 71 percent of the snaps.

Avant does a good job lining up in the slot and working the middle of the field. He's shown time and again that he's as tough as they come.

But the Steve Smith addition could have an effect on how often Avant's on the field. I'm guessing the Eagles will go with more 4-WR sets, but when Smith is at 100 percent, he could take some snaps away from Avant in the slot in 3-WR sets.

Steve Smith - He's on the 53-man roster to start the season, but it's impossible to predict when he'll start making an impact on the field. We won't really know the answer to that question until the games start.

So let's discuss what Smith brings to the table when healthy. He's versatile, having split his snaps as an outside receiver and a slot receiver pretty evenly last year with the Giants. Smith can be a good red-zone threat too. Eight of his 11 career touchdowns have been from inside the opponents' 20. It wouldn't surprise me to see the Eagles spell Jackson in the red zone in certain packages and go with Maclin, Smith and Avant.

He should also provide the Eagles with another intermediate option. In 2009, when Smith had 107 receptions, 78 of them were made within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.

The question becomes: How does Smith fit in? I mentioned above that he could take snaps away from Avant, and he will almost certainly be used in the red zone. But this could affect Brent Celek also. The Eagles went with four wide receivers 12 percent of the time last year, sixth-most in the NFL. And that number could increase in 2011.

Riley Cooper - Last season ended with Vick looking for Cooper in the end zone and Packers cornerback Tramon Williams coming down with the ball. But, given the addition of Smith, I'm not sure Cooper will have much of a role in this offense when the four receivers ahead of him are healthy.

Having said that, chances are, there will be injuries, and Cooper will be asked to fill in. One thing he has going for him is that Cooper brings size that the other receivers don't possess. He can also contribute on special teams.

The Eagles have put themselves in a great position from a depth standpoint at wide receiver. Cooper has the skill set to be a contributor on offense. I'm just not sure we're going to see that this year.

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