In focus: DeSean Jackson's big-play ability

Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson (probable, concussion) is expected to get back on the field Sunday after missing last week's game against the Falcons.

He'll get a chance to continue what has been an impressive season statistically, and really an impressive two-year run.

More than any other up-and-coming receiver in the league, Jackson’s performances are defined by big plays (receptions of 20-plus yards). Jackson ranks eighth in the NFL in terms of big plays over the last two seasons.

Here's the list, along with a comparison of how many big plays each receiver had in his first two seasons.

Player

20+ Yard Receiving plays 08-09 (40+ yard plays in parentheses)

20+ Yard Receiving plays in first 2 seasons (40+ yard plays)

Steve Smith (CAR)

33 (10)

20 (4)

Andre Johnson (HOU)

33 (10)

32 (7)

Calvin Johnson (DET)

32 (11)

33 (8)

Larry Fitzgerald (ARI)

32 (5)

42 (5)

Greg Jennings (GB)

31 (12)

23 (9)

Randy Moss (NE)

30 (9)

46 (22)

Reggie Wayne (IND)

29 (3)

17 (5)

DeSean Jackson (PHI)

28 (9)

33 (12) projected

Marques Colston (NO)

28 (7)

29 (5)

Roddy White (ATL)

28 (7)

12 (7)

Antonio Bryant (TB)

28 (6)

22 (6)

Hines Ward (PIT)

28 (5)

9 (2)

Donald Driver (GNB)

27 (10)

10 (1)


This doesn’t mean that Jackson is going to be better than Reggie Wayne. But it shows that Jackson is currently the quickest developing big-play receiver in the NFL, not named Calvin Johnson. If he can haul in one more bomb in the Eagles’ final four games, he will become the only player to reach double digit 40-plus yard plays in his first two NFL seasons since Randy Moss did it back in 1998-99. Granted, Moss had 22, and Jackson projects to have 12, but impressive nonetheless.

For those of you unfamiliar with the standard progression of wide receivers, it suggests that they tend to break out during their third years. This summer, Nick Higgins wrote a guest column for footballoutsiders.com where he analyzed the performance of up and coming wide receivers in relation to the third-year theory.

What he found was that the third year was generally the year when wide receivers broke out in terms of their fantasy (and by extension, their real) performance. Breaking out is defined by an increase of 50 fantasy points or more over the previous season. In other words, an improvement of 500 yards, eight touchdowns or some combination of the two in standard scoring leagues.

Higgins found that by categorizing receivers according to their fantasy draft position and previous best statistical season, he could more accurately predict the likelihood of players breaking out.

You can read Higgins article if you want an in-depth explanation of his methods. What I will tell you is that Jackson was one of only a handful of players who was expected to break out this season, and one of the only ones predicted to do so in his second year.

The others who fit the description: Donnie Avery, Dwayne Bowe, Santonio Holmes and Eddie Royal. The only two players with a higher probability of breaking out were Ted Ginn, Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez. In most years, 25-35 percent of players in these categories break out. Of the seven, only Jackson is on pace to break out (although Holmes is very close as well).

After catching 62 passes for 912 yards and two touchdowns in his first season, he is on pace for 64 receptions, 1,118 yards, and eight TDs. That’s an expected jump of 56 fantasy points, without even taking into account his improvements in rushing and returning.

For reference, here are the seasons that the others in Jackson’s group have posted so far:

Player (TEAM)

Last Year

This Year (projected)

Difference (fantasy points)

Breakout?

Avery (STL)

674 yards, 3 TD

661 yards, 7 TD

+25 points

No

Bowe (KC)

1022 yards, 7 TD

746 yards, 6 TD

-34 points

No

Holmes (PIT)

821 yards, 5 TD

1329 yards, 4 TD

+44 points

Close

Royal (DEN)

980 yards, 5 TD

419 yards, 2 TD

-75 points

No

Ginn (MIA)

790 yards, 2 TD

403 yards, 3 TD

-33 points

No

Gonzalez (IND)

664 yards, 4 TD

N/A (injury)

N/A

No


Admittedly, there are shortcomings in drawing hard conclusions from such a small sample size of players, just as there are shortcomings to projecting a player’s production with four games remaining in the regular season.

Compared to the others, Jackson’s performance underscores just how many factors have to fall into place in order for even the most talented receivers to have breakout years. Injuries, compatibility with the offensive system/coaching scheme and supporting cast shape a player’s chances of breaking out.

Jackson has had all of those factors in place (barring his recent concussion), and he has had the talent to take advantage of his opportunities in spite of other potential obstacles.

The real point of this evaluation is that it may indicate how Jackson's career could fall into place from this point forward. Who have been the other players in Higgins’ analysis who fit the breakout mold?

Last year, Greg Jennings, Roddy White and Calvin Johnson were the three notable standouts. Wayne (2000) and Torry Holt (2003) also followed the pattern this decade, but so have Braylon Edwards (2007) and Ashley Lelie (2004).

That is to say, while many of the players who have previously broken out have gone on to have very successful careers, there is no guarantee.

On Sunday, we'll see if Jackson can continue to add to his already impressive numbers against a Giants' defense that allowed 392 yards through the air last week against Dallas.


Ben Singer is an intern at Philly.com Sports and a graduate of Brown University. You can read his theory on the "Contract year phenomenon" on footballoutsiders.com.

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