Player evaluation can be a complicated process at times, but there are instances in which you just have to go with your gut. With the draft just a month away, most football fans are thinking about how their favorite teams are going to take the best possible college players and work them into their specific schemes. But occasionally, a valuable and unexpected commodity will pop loose in free agency, and that's what happened when the Philadelphia Eagles released receiver DeSean Jackson on March 28. The Washington Redskins, the Eagles' longtime division rival, snapped Jackson up in hopes that he can revive a passing game that regressed pretty seriously in 2013.
Fresh off a fairly dominant rookie campaign in 2012, quarterback Robert Griffin III struggled in his second season, and the 'Skins finished 3-13. That record would have netted them the second overall pick in this year's draft, but for the trade that netted them the right to select Griffin second overall two years ago. So, in all sorts of ways, it made sense for Washington, and new head coach Jay Gruden, to seize the moment, work past Jackson's alleged off-field issues and essentially make Jackson their first-round pick in 2014.
“As soon as that happened, it was ‘Wow’ for us,” Gruden told SiriusXM NFL Radio on Monday (via DC Sports Bog). “Guys like that don’t come around very often. And when they do, you have to do your due diligence and you have to do whatever it takes to try to get the guy if you think he’s a fit. And we felt like he was a fit for us. So [general manager] Bruce Allen [was] all systems go, and made a play for him, and it ended up working out to get him.”
While Griffin had his own reasons for regression in 2013, one thing was just as clear -- he didn't have enough talent around him when it came to receivers. Pierre Garcon led the league with 181 targets and ranked 45th in Football Outsiders' season-cumulative efficiency rankings. That's not a knock on Garcon, who is a perfectly fine B-plus receiver in the NFL, but Santana Moss was RGIII's second-most found target last season with 79 passes, and he ranked 87th in those same metrics. Clearly, it was time for a change. And when the Redskins let Mike Shanahan go and replaced him with Gruden, it was the first phase of a transition to a more traditional passing game. As the Bengals' offensive coordinator, Gruden set up an offense with one truly transcendent receiver in A.J. Green, some outstanding role players and a quarterback in Andy Dalton who has about half of Griffin's pure talent on his best day. And as Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup astutely noted in a recent appearance on the Ross Tucker Podcast, moving Jackson into a Green-like role will open things up for everyone.
"For the Redskins, Andre Roberts [acquired via free agency in the offseason] is a nice receiver, but I think everyone would pretty much view him as a No. 3," Cosell said. "He was very effective in that role in Arizona for a couple years, and I think that's what he is. And I think Jay Gruden is going to teach RGIII and the Redskins much more of an NFL passing game. While there will still be option elements, because you do have a quarterback who can move, I think they will evolve into more of a pro-type passing game. When you have that, you want more receivers. That's why this move makes sense for them.
"Let's say Jackson is the 'Z,' or movement receiver. The 'X' is on the line of scrimmage, and the 'Z' is off the line, so he's the movement guy. The 'Z' is usually on the side of the tight end. So, now you have two receivers, the tight end, and DeSean Jackson, theoretically, who will demand coverage. If DeSean eats up a safety in addition to the cornerback, that makes the read on the 'X' side -- he'll get a lot more man coverage. It makes it easier [for Griffin] to read pre-snap as he learns the new offense."
And according to ESPN Stats & Info, Jackson in 2013 caught most of his passes in three-receiver sets -- 51 receptions for 916 yards and six touchdowns. This formation was the main component in Jackson's career-season in Chip Kelly's offense, when he had 82 catches for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns.
So, what makes Jackson special in this (or any other) offense? Let's start with his most obvious attribute -- pure blazing speed. With the possible exception of Percy Harvin, Jackson is most likely the field-fastest receiver in the NFL, and he's been a lot healthier than Harvin over the last few seasons. In 2013, Jackson caught 16 of the 33 passes thrown to him that traveled 20 or more yards in the air, for 553 yards and eight touchdowns, per Pro Football Focus. Green, the main target in Gruden's last offense, caught 15 of 38 such passes for 586 yards and eight touchdowns. They're different types of receivers, but the template has been set.
Two plays from the Eagles' wild-card playoff loss illustrate Jackson's speed on routes from the seam to the sideline -- one was a catch, and one was not, and the play that wasn't a catch illustrated even more graphically Jackson's ability to break defenses apart with his speed.
Winning speed battles in the vertical passing game
This play happened from the New Orleans' 43-yard line, with the Saints up 23-17, and the Eagles with 1st-and-10. The Eagles started this drive at their own 23-yard line and went shotgun no-huddle all the way, keeping the Saints in base defense. Jackson was lined up wide right, with cornerback Corey White playing tight coverage.
White did the right thing at the snap -- he moved to his left and kept Jackson from hitting the boundary, forcing Jackson inside to the numbers. The deep safety might have worked to Jackson's side right away, but quarterback Nick Foles looked off to his left in the direction of receiver Riley Cooper, and this split the deep coverage. Thus, White was all alone on Jackson all the way to the end zone. And unless you're Richard Sherman, Darrelle Revis or Patrick Peterson, that's not a good place to be.
As you can see, White ran with Jackson to the 30-yard line, but Jackson turned on his ACME Rocket extra gear, and started to pull away. Ten yards later, he had a full step on White.
And at the 5-yard line, the only thing for White to do was to wait for Foles' airball to come down, and prevent a touchdown on this play by committing obvious pass interference (below). This was a 40-yard gain on the penalty, and the Eagles scored two plays later, when Foles threw a three-yard touchdown pass to tight end Zach Ertz.
Jackson will win these matches over and over, opening things up for everyone else. And he's fast enough to be more than a decoy.
"There are a number of things with DeSean Jackson," Cosell said. "If you look at him in a traditional, conventional sense, he's primarily a vertical guy. He's primarily a speed guy. He's not going to run the full route tree -- he can run receiver screens, and he's very good after the catch, but he's not going to run the same kinds of routes over the years that a Steve Smith ran. [Smith] ran a lot of routes inbetween the numbers. In-breaking routes and inside routes. You're not going to get a lot of that from DeSean Jackson. You're essentially going to get an outside-the-numbers receiver who can attack defenses vertically and take the top off the coverage."
Cosell also discussed how Jackson gets open unconventionally, but we'll get to that in a minute. First, let's bust a myth.
Fighting for the ball
The general knock on Jackson, at least in an on-field sense, seems to be that he's afraid to be physical against aggressive coverage, and that he will defer when pressed. This may be true on occasion, but another play against White -- again for 40 yards -- proves this to be a bit of a canard. This time, White played off-coverage and drew Jackson inside again. Jackson edged outside as the coverage changed, but White stuck with him. Problem was, White overreacted and got overtly physical with Jackson, who jumped up and made the catch anyway. This was a huge play -- the Eagles were down 20-7 on this drive, and scored a touchdown four plays later to keep things manageable.
As Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen pointed out in a recent article, Jackson's game is more about pure separation than physical play -- at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, there's only so much he can do. But he will be physical in certain instances, and he will fight for the ball, and that's something else the Redskins got when they signed him.
Using motion and formation diversity to create separation
Now, as to the ways in which Kelly created even more separation through formations and motion. Not only did Kelly feature Jackson on screens and certain shorter routes in which Jackson could turn on the burners and get yards after the catch, but also he set Jackson in the backfield to keep him from getting enveloped and negated by the few defenders who can actually match up to him. Patrick Peterson, the Arizona Cardinals' star cornerback, is one such player, and here's how Kelly set Jackson up for success. Jackson caught three passes on six targets for 36 yards in the Eagles' 24-21 win over the Cardinals on Dec. 1, and this 25-yarder with 2:22 left in the first half was an optimal example.
Pre-snap, running back Chris Polk moved from Foles' left in the backfield to the right inside slot. This took linebacker Karlos Dansby over to cover Polk, while Peterson (red box, second image below) stuck with Jackson, who was still in the backfield. This was 1st-and-10 from the Philly 22-yard line.
At the snap, Peterson had to navigate through a thicket of players from both teams, as the call was for Polk and Ertz to confuse the issue with short drag routes that crossed over.
This slowed Peterson down just enough for Jackson to make the play.
"The reason I think he had so much success last year numbers-wise is because Chip Kelly used him more as a movement receiver," Cosell recalled. "He was in motion, he lined up in different places, and there were numerous snaps last year where he lined up in the backfield. The Eagles got matchups they wanted to get. So, it'll be interesting to see how Jay Gruden chooses to use him with the Redskins -- whether he's used more conventionally and simply lines up opposite Pierre Garcon, who's a very good receiver as well, or whether Jay decides to mix and match in terms of movement and alignment. Because then, I think DeSean Jackson has added value."
Three plays later, here was a more traditional route concept that Peterson had on lock. Now, the Eagles had 1st-and-10 from the Arizona 42-yard line. Jackson got outside position, but this just allowed Peterson to stick to him like glue, and there was no formation advantage to be had.
Peterson is no Corey White -- he was going to trail Jackson wherever he went.
At the end of the play in the end zone, Jackson wasn't jumping to make a play; he was jumping up to deflect an interception, and appeared to suffer a lower left leg injury in the process.
With four minutes left in the game, Peterson made an amazing play when he stayed in the middle of the field as Jackson ran up top off a slant-and-go for an interception. That may have been a route gone wrong, but it spoke more to Peterson's ability to clamp down on any receiver he faces.
That aside, DeSean Jackson is a rare talent who isn't easily replaceable. He's not just another speed receiver, and the Redskins will benefit greatly from his presence -- if he can keep his head on straight. Kelly sees it differently, though -- even when he was praising Jackson at the owners' meetings in late March just before Jackson's release, the coach implied that Jackson was more fungible in his system.
"His speed, his ability to separate and make plays is key," Kelly said of Jackson. "That’s part of everything you do on offense. People want to put you in man-to-man coverage. We saw more of that than other people. Having guys who can get open versus man coverage is a key deal. Whether it’s Coop [Riley Cooper] or Mac [Jeremy Maclin] or DeSean or whomever. I think that’s the one thing we know as a group going in, one-on-one coverage is a big deal for us. It is a big deal in this league. I don’t have the numbers, but people probably played us more man than most teams in the league. We’re always looking for guys who can exploit that matchup. The addition of [running back Darren] Sproles -- are you gonna play us in man? Now you have to have a linebacker cover him if he’s the back. That’s kind of a huge addition when we thought about bringing him [Sproles] in."