The Eagles wide receiver position could look drastically different by the start of the 2014 season. With the ever-mercurial DeSean Jackson once again expressing his desire to re-do his contract, Howie Roseman and the Philadelphia front office have a difficult decision to make. If upper management is sincere about their new approach to roster management and salary cap flexibility, do not be surprised if Jackson’s career-year in 2013 was his last as an Eagle. Jackson was undoubtedly the team’s best receiver last season and a key reason for the Eagles’ six-win turnaround from 2012.
That said, Jackson is and always will be a receiver dealing with deficiencies. He relies so much on speed and quickness to make up for his slight frame. At 27, Jackson is not getting any faster or quicker and despite his improvements in route-running and willingness to go over the middle, he is not the prototypical franchise wide receiver i.e. Julio Jones, Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson, etc. Jackson might want to get paid like one of these players, but a smart front office coming off a division title should realize that would be a crippling mistake. Jackson was far from prolific down the stretch for the Eagles and with a draft loaded with playmakers with similar talents, the team might have to accept that he is not in their plans for the future.
Veteran Jason Avant is under contract for one more season at a very manageable $2.25 million number. Similar situation with Brad Smith ($1.3 million), who the team acquired during last season.
So with the possibility of not having Jackson on the roster in 2014 and the only other wideouts with significant snaps under contract being more of the role-player variety, the focus shifts toward Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin. The two lifelong Eagles, both still in their mid-20s: Cooper-26 and Maclin-25, saw their careers go in opposite directions following debilitating preseason incidents in 2013. Maclin, a former first round pick, was entering a contract year looking to score big in the form of an extension or free agent contract only to have a torn ACL suffered in a non-contact drill end his season before taking a single snap. Cooper, a career backup & special teams player, committed what could have been career suicide when he was captured using a racial slur on video. After apologizing and acknowledging the error of his ways, head coach Chip Kelly, some say out of necessity due to Maclin’s injury, kept Cooper on board.
Cooper rewarded the showing of faith by turning in by far his best year as a pro. The 5th round pick out of Florida’s 2013 season exceeded all of his prior contributions combined as an Eagle. Cooper had more receptions (47), receiving yards (835) and touchdowns (8) in 2013 than he had compiled in his first three seasons as a pro. He added a touchdown catch in the team’s playoff loss to the Saints and, by season’s end, had emerged as one of Nick Foles go-to targets.
With 2013 a thing of the past, the Eagles face a difficult decision with their two receivers. Both players have expressed their desire to return to Philadelphia and, for the right price, it would be justified to do so. However, the NFL is a business and the team has to consider the potential long-term ramifications of signing two wide receivers, generally looked at as a high-ticket item, to long-term deals. There are certainly pros and cons to each player and it is a certainty that Roseman and the rest of the front office is crunching the numbers and weighing just what bringing back one or both of these players would mean to the bigger picture of the organization. Here is my take on each player.
For his entire career as an Eagle, Maclin has been solid if not spectacular holding down the spot opposite to Jackson on the field. He has never tallied less than the 56 receptions he had his rookie season and, when healthy, has been the Eagles most consistent target on the outside. One could not blame Maclin for trying to cash in on four years of success by avoiding signing an extension and playing his contract year hoping to hit it big, a la Joe Flacco.
Maclin’s injury was one of the cruel reminders about some of the realities of sports. Flacco gambled in 2012 and won to the tune of a contract that made him the highest paid quarterback in league history at the time. Maclin gambled and did not take a step on the Lincoln Financial Field before knowing it would not pay off. Paired with his bizarre illness that caused him to miss almost all of training camp prior to the 2011 season, Maclin’s career is more noted for his terrible luck rather than his solid play on the field.
Still, at just 25 years old, the young receiver has time to pick up the pieces and eventually earn the contract he felt he was on the cusp of after a breakout 2013 season. Maclin approaches the game in a professional, mature way that is refreshing compared to the ‘diva’ narrative the surrounds most wide receivers. If there is anyone that realizes the consequences of his setback, it is Maclin and one can be assured he knows how to go about limiting the damage in terms of the scape of his career.
The Eagles have a couple of different options with Maclin. One would be signing him to a one-year ‘show-me’ deal for the 2014 season. This would essentially be the organization giving Maclin a reasonable sum to allow him to play the year he was supposed to in 2013 indicating he was fully healed from his injury. The salary would be guaranteed, but the team would not leave themselves susceptible to the long-term effects of Maclin potentially re-injuring himself. If he were to suffer another injury or setback, they could get out after one season and go to bed at night knowing they at least gave it a shot.
The downside of this option is that Maclin would still become a free agent heading into the 2015 season. If he were to have the sort of breakout year he expected in 2013, one can bet that other teams would be chomping at the bit for a receiver in his 20s poised for stardom. Even if they ended up re-signing Maclin, it might be for a price they wanted to avoid giving to a wide receiver.
The other option with Maclin is to sign him to a long-term contract laced with incentives and performance bonuses. Giving him a multi-year deal with less guaranteed money, similar to what they did with DeSean Jackson a few years ago, would ensure Maclin stay under their control should he have the breakout season he so desired. Even with the potential bonuses and benchmarks of a contract such as this, the Eagles could end up looking like geniuses of Maclin showed he was healthy and back on track to turning into the dynamic receiver everyone expected him to before his injury.
This option leaves the franchise susceptible to the ramifications of Maclin re-injuring himself and never reaching the potential that was once so bright. Even with little guaranteed money in terms of base salary, the team would have to buy out Maclin’s contract for a price if it became clear he could not overcome the injuries or perform up to standards. Every spot on a team’s 53-man roster is so valuable that there is zero room for dead weight. An injured wide receiver serves no purpose and, even if it meant suffering the cap hit that comes along with it, the Eagles would have to see to it that Maclin’s spot open up when it becomes clear his being on the team is more of a hindrance.
When it comes down to it, these options are different at the core. The one-year option is erring on the side of caution, hoping that Maclin rewards the loyalty of the team should he perform more like he did prior to his injury. The second option is a bit more on the optimistic side, and would indicate the Eagles felt that Maclin’s ACL tear was a minor hiccup in what they still believe will be a prolific career in the NFL.
The Eagles are a bit more limited when it comes to Riley Cooper. Controversy or not, the NFL is a results-based business and, unless another red flag pops up indicating that Cooper might have a serious problem as far as his preseason faux pax goes, he’s going to get paid.
Cooper took all of his criticism in stride, stayed out of the spotlight from that point forward, and turned in arguably the most surprising season of any Eagle in 2013. Despite a slow start, he rounded into form as a red zone threat and a downfield target for Nick Foles. By season’s end, Cooper preseason mishap was a distant memory and teammates, such as Brad Smith, were taking to the media to sing the praises of the once-disgraced Eagle.
Cooper, to an extent, is in the mold of the type of receiver that is excelling more and more in the NFL. Cooper is not a burner like Jackson or Maclin, but he has adequate speed to beat single coverage and turn short catches into long gains. Cooper’s most valuable attributes are his strength and his ability to track balls in traffic. On multiple occasions this season, Cooper was able to outmuscle defenders for underthrown balls or draw pass interference penalties which are becoming as vital a part of offenses as completions. He is not nearly as skilled or athletic as receiver like Julio Jones or Brandon Marshall, but he can run every route and is a dependable option on 50-50 balls.
Cooper also brings the first physical presence from the receiver position that the Eagles have had since Terrell Owens. He is a fantastic blocker and is a big target that allows quarterbacks to keep plays alive. Had Cooper been able to demonstrate his abilities earlier in his career, one could argue he be in line for a payday much earlier than waiting on free agency.
Had Cooper stayed out of the limelight before the season, he would certainly be mentioned in the same breath as some of the top free agents in the 2014 offseason. While he is still a relatively attractive option, every team in the league watched the coverage of his incident and the potential effect on a locker room that a polarizing player like Cooper could have will most likely prevent teams from offering the same money that they would to someone like Eric Decker.
This is something that the Eagles should, and I imagine will use to their advantage. While they have a few different options as far as keeping Cooper on the team, the way I look at it they can either sign him to a multi-year deal or let him walk. The team using the franchise tag is a possibility, but the going rate for a receiver as a franchise player was over $10 million in 2013. That number will most likely go up and, despite his production, that is a lot to commit to someone who just had their first solid season in the NFL even for just one year.
Whether or not Cooper wants to test the free agent waters is something the Eagles cannot control. That said, while the NFL is a business, there has to be something said for the fact that the Eagles arguably kept Cooper’s NFL career afloat. If Philadelphia plays the situation smart, they should draw a line in the sand with Cooper. Offer him a reasonable, multi-year contract. Should Cooper express his desire to negotiate or ask for more money from the Eagles, let him walk and say thanks.
If Cooper enters the offseason looking for the biggest payday, Philadelphia is not the place for him. He might continue to improve and produce at a higher rate, but he had his only productive season under Chip Kelly with Nick Foles as his quarterback. Cooper was unable to distinguish himself with Donovan McNabb or Michael Vick as quarterback. The only time he has had success was under a very specific set of limitations. Cooper is young enough that, if he continues to produce at a high level, he could establish himself as a fixture on the Eagles. What his situation will probably come down to is: Does he and another team think they can tap into the same sort of production that was on display this season?
The best teams in the NFL are built from the inside out. In a perfect world, the team’s allocation of bigger chunks of their cap room should be reserved to some of their premiere linemen, a promising tight end like Zach Ertz, and whoever the quarterback of the future is. Quarterbacks that are worthy of being labeled as ‘franchise’ options should have the ability to bring out the best in receivers and not have to depend on the top 1% of the league as far as talent goes. Despite Cooper establishing himself as a viable security blanket throughout the season, Ertz started to make up ground in that department and could be on the cusp of being one of the top young tight ends in football in the near future.
The Eagles have the luxury of bringing out the best in Cooper while at the same time providing him a haven from the sort of criticism he faced soon after his preseason incident. For this reason, they might be able to get away with locking up Cooper for a slightly below-to-market price for a receiver with his level of production. Cooper does not have much wear and tear on him and has shown he can make big plays on a large stage. Many organizations will have a difficult time getting past the fact that bringing in a receiver with one year of solid output and the potential to divide a locker room could derail a roster. The Eagles do not have to overbid for Cooper. He showed he has a connection with their apparent quarterback of the future, so letting him walk without at least keeping the lines of communications open would be irresponsible. That said, if a team offers Cooper a deal along the same lines of other free agents such as Hakeem Nicks or Eric Decker, it would be bad business to get into a bidding war over a player that could end up being a career role players.
This is a tough decision for me. I have always liked Maclin as a player, but there are some gaffes and drops he has had even prior to his injury that always made me wonder if he could step up in the biggest situations. Cooper is a target that I imagine will become more the norm in the NFL compared to some of the quicker, speedier receivers and getting him at a good price is appealing. Honestly, if both of these players value themselves beyond market value, the Eagles should not re-sign either.
That said, especially considering DeSean could be moved in the near future, that is a lot of unfamiliarity for a quarterback entering his first full season as a starter. This is a situation that calls for choosing between one or the other. What it comes down to for me is which player could end up hurting the Eagles most in the wallet, rather than which player I think will be better.
For this reason, Cooper is the pick for me. It is impossible to predict whether he will give the Eagles any sort of discount. If teams start bidding over Cooper, it would be ridiculous for him to turn down higher offers just because the Eagles gave him a second chance. However, if one team offers a little more than the Eagles and the big wideout falls back on the offer from Philadelphia, he could end up being one of the more productive players on the team for a great price.
Being a first round pick, if Maclin produces this season under a one-year contract for example, there is no way he won’t expect to be paid like a top wideout in the league. Maclin knows the ins and outs of the NFL quite well and, while he is a great pro and teammate, he could end up putting the Eagles in a less-than-ideal situation as far as negotiating a contract with a skill player, something they now know all too well about. Even if they sign Maclin to an incentive-laden deal, while he is not the type of personality that Jackson is, there’s no way of guaranteeing that two years down the road, he won’t want to re-negotiate his deal to give him more security.
An iron-clad deal with Cooper is the ideal situation. Cooper’s game depends less on speed and more on the attributes that time and aging does not affect (size, tracking ability). He has no history with injuries and, in essentially 12 games, emerged as Nick Foles’ favorite target on the outside. He was part of the team’s first season under Chip Kelly and has grown with the offense in a way that Maclin, through no fault of his own, has not. Throughout the entire season, it constantly felt like people said, ‘Imagine what this offense would look like with Jeremy Maclin.’ It probably would have looked like one without Riley Cooper, who was the team’s most dangerous weapon in the endzone and arguably the most dependable target on the field week-in and week-out.
There were such high hopes for Maclin entering the 2013 season. He was a weapon every year he had been here and looked poised to break out with the team’s new high-flying offense. The Eagles offense was dynamic this season, but it was not the one that many envisioned at year’s end. This team is built on running the ball, hurting the team with quick passing and downfield blocking, and receivers making plays when they have to. Not only is Cooper more tailored to what the offense looked like last year and appears to be headed in, but the ceiling of his pay-grade is lower than the 1st round pick Maclin. The best organizations in the NFL avoid paying replaceable players huge sums due to sentimental value or potential. The Eagles look like they are drawing a line in the sand and shifting their focus toward maintaining controllable talent at a reasonable price and getting out of contracts before they hurt their salary cap situation long-term. It might not be a popular choice, but given the decision between the two I am taking Riley Cooper.