BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Here's the easy part. DeSean Jackson has been underpaid and deserves a substantial raise before he plays another NFL game. Everyone from Jackson to agent Drew Rosenhaus to Andy Reid to Joe Banner would agree on that point.
The not-so-easy part is figuring out just how substantial that raise should be. Jackson is tough to place a value on, because he doesn't compare easily to other wide receivers. His unique skill set, the way he contributes beyond what his statistics show, his small stature and his history of concussions create a complicated formula.
Jackson did not report with his Eagles teammates to Lehigh Thursday morning. That was both understandable and regrettable. Understandable because Jackson has been frustrated by his contract for a long time and wants to force that issue onto the Eagles' front burner, regrettable because the end of the lockout has created unprecedented chaos for teams trying to get their rosters together. A little bit of good will on Jackson's part would go a long way here.
The Eagles got one piece of pressing business taken care of Thursday. They finally completed the long-awaited trade of quarterback Kevin Kolb to Arizona. Kolb, who made about 25 times as much money as Jackson last year, received yet another large chunk of guaranteed money in a five-year deal with the Cardinals.
It's a sound trade for the Eagles. They fill a gaping hole in their defense with cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and get a second-round draft choice as well. The Kolb era, such as it was, comes to an end with the same shrug that defined his time with the Eagles.
The next steps are infinitely more important and interesting. The Eagles need a few more key pieces on their defense: a linebacker (or two) and a veteran safety, at least. They need to get this whole circus under the big top and see how it looks before the season begins.
Oh, and they have to deal with contracts for Jackson and quarterback Michael Vick. Those two items may be intertwined. The Vick deal will be larger and will have a lasting impact on the salary cap. The Jackson deal is going to be tougher, and not just because the player and his agent have decided to force the issue.
The first rule in NFL deals is to pay for future performance, not past achievement. The Eagles have made unpopular choices with veterans (can you say Brian Dawkins?) because they adhere to this rule as best they can. Their philosophy has been to identify young players on their way up and lock them in to long-term deals.
Nobody fit that profile better than Jackson. He would have gotten his second contract by now if his career arc hadn't collided with the lockout. The Eagles couldn't complete their customary extension because of the vagaries of the uncapped 2010 season. So Jackson played out the third season of his four-year rookie contract, and it was a case study in the complexity of placing a value on him.
The market has been set. Santonio Holmes agreed to terms with the Jets this week for five years at a reported $50 million. That deal reportedly has $24 million in guaranteed money. Seattle wrapped up free agent Sidney Rice this week for five years at a reported $41 million, with $18.5 million guaranteed.
Jackson is at least as valuable as either of them in the Eagles' big-play offense. His 2010 numbers (47 catches, 1,056 yards, 6 TDs) don't tell the whole story. His average of 22.5 yards per reception, the strain he puts on defenses, and his return skills all add value.
A fair deal would average about $10 million to $12 million a year over six or seven seasons - the length actually benefits the Eagles because it is more cap-friendly. Jackson is only 24. He'd turn 32 near the end of the final season of a seven-year deal.
So it's simple, right? Well, there are a few qualifiers.
Jackson isn't the most mature guy to come along. Then again, as wide receivers go, his diva qualities aren't out of proportion. The bigger concerns are physical: Jackson, listed at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, has been knocked out of games with concussions in each of the last two seasons. Last year's injury, which came against Atlanta in October, was especially severe. Because of that, because of his size, and because speed is his entire game, Jackson's career longevity is a more pressing issue than, say, that of the 6-4, 200-pound Rice or the 6-5, 230-pound Vincent Jackson.
That is exactly the reason that DeSean Jackson wants and deserves a new deal before he places himself at risk for another game, let alone a season.
He is right to want that deal. He shouldn't hold out to get it, but then, he really shouldn't have to.