With the departure of wide receiver and three-time Pro Bowler DeSean Jackson, the Philadelphia Eagles lost one of the most explosive playmakers in the NFL.
That’s a fact, and something that’s not easily replaced.
Just how good was Jackson in 2013? Well, he finished top 10 within nearly all of our advanced Net Expected Points metrics among receivers with 60 or more catches, which measure of the number of points added or lost by a player over the course of a season.
|Year||Rec. NEP||Target NEP||Rec. NEP per Target||Catch Rate|
This data, along with Jackson’s 82 receptions, 1,332 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns, demonstrates that he's churning out the type of production seen from a top receiver in the NFL.
Jackson's numbers exploded last year, and 2013 was his best season as a pro by a pretty large margin. He amassed 20 more catches than his previous high, 175-plus more receiving yards and tied a career high in receiving touchdowns. So, did Jackson finally put it all together in his sixth year as a pro, or was his production more so a result of Chip Kelly's offensive scheme?
Actually, does Kelly's offense even require a legitimate number one receiver? In his six seasons calling the plays at Oregon, there were only two years in which the Ducks had a receiver with more than 10 receiving touchdowns. In the other four years, the touchdowns were more equally distributed between the collective group of receivers. Kelly has been adamant from the beginning that he looks at the entire unit when talking about positions.
So where does that leave the Eagles in 2014?
With Jackson no longer in the fold, the Eagles will turn to wide receiver and former first-round pick Jeremy Maclin to help pick up the slack. Maclin, however, is coming off his second torn ACL, and many doubt whether he can be a true number one.
Maclin does have one thing going for him, however - he hasn't had the opportunity to play in Kelly's offense, which is something both Jackson and Riley Cooper’s took complete advantage of on their way to career years. Optimism should remain high that Maclin can do the same thing.
In order to look at Maclin's potential (as a true number one), we can analyze how his past production stacks up compared to the rest of the top wideout’s in the NFL. In particular, we can look at Maclin’s rankings in terms of numberFire’s metrics from his three most recent (healthy) years in the NFL.
|Year||Rec. NEP||Target NEP||Rec. NEP/Target||Catch Rate|
For comparison, here are wide receiver Riley Cooper’s numbers from last season, who was the consensus number two guy in Philly:
|Year||Rec NEP||Target NEP||Rec NEP/Target||Catch Rate|
(It would be difficult to justify the inclusion of Cooper’s previous years in the NFL because he never had the opportunity to start)
According to our metrics, Maclin hasn’t really come close to matching the production of Jackson in 2013, and hasn’t put up the numbers that would put him in the same breath as other top wide receivers in the NFL. Even his best year in 2010 (70 catches, 964 yards, 10 touchdowns) doesn’t put him in the top 15 best receivers (minimum 60 catches).
Again, it's very important to keep in mind that Maclin hasn't had the opportunity to play in Kelly's scheme, and it isn't completely fair to make a final judgement on him until he does. It's almost like having one of your favorite cars in the garage without being able to drive it.
If we look at the rankings above, Maclin’s numbers fall more so in line with Cooper’s in 2013 (Cooper had 47 catches for 835 yards and 8 touchdowns). So in reality, it seems the Eagles actually have themselves a pair of solid number two receivers as opposed to a clear-cut number one.
What’s most interesting about this development is that it’s exactly what head coach Chip Kelly wanted, according to team owner Jeffrey Lurie.
“Chip and his people were incredibly clear that for us to get better, we need to take a step back and reconfigure the wide receiver position,” Lurie told Joseph Santoliquito of CBS Philly.
That's exactly what the Eagles did, by drafting a pair of receivers in Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff last month, as well as releasing slot guy Jason Avant.
Now, we begin to see the whole idea of wide receivers as a "unit" take shape.
Spreading the Wealth
Although Maclin and Cooper aren't necessarily going to produce at the rate of a true number one receiver, they probably won’t have to in Kelly’s high octane offense. The truth of the matter is that the Eagles will replace Jackson’s offensive targets through a plethora of weapons that include the likes of running back Darren Sproles (89 targets in 2013 with New Orleans), and tight ends Zach Ertz (57 targets) and Brent Celek (51 targets).
In addition, numberFire’s very own Leo Howell wrote a great article here on how the rookie Matthews fits into the Eagles’ offense. In that article, Leo notes that over 200 “receiver” targets open up with the release of wideouts Jackson and Avant, and that Matthews could see close to half of them.
These targeting breakdowns are also right in line with Maclin’s career average of 106.5 targets per year.
Keeping all of those numbers in mind, it’s easy to see why the Eagles don’t necessarily need a true top wide receiver in Kelly’s offense. They want defenses to have to game plan for as many options as possible on a week-to-week basis.
This concept is something for fantasy football owners to keep in mind - the Eagles’ offensive weapons could have a more equal distribution of targets each week, similar to what the Denver Broncos wide receiving corps resembled last season. Except in this case, the wide receivers aren't automatic red zone weapons, and they have a monster in the backfield in LeSean McCoy.
Maclin’s Potential and the Nick Foles’ Factor
In any case, Maclin certainly does have a great amount of potential moving forward in replacing DeSean Jackson. Not only is he two years younger than Jackson, but he also had more touchdowns, first downs, and average receptions in 12 less games.
In addition, Maclin is one of just five wide receivers to ever reach 250 catches, 3,500 yards, and 25 touchdowns before his 25th birthday. He's also in a group of only nine other receivers to record at least 55 receptions and 750 yards in each of his first four seasons.
Oh, and there's also the Nick Foles factor.
As Brandon Lee Gowton of Bleeding Green Nation points out here, Foles and Maclin developed quite the chemistry in the six games they played together in 2012. Maclin recorded 37 catches for 479 yards and 3 touchdowns, including a game-winning catch against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as time expired.
If you take those numbers and extrapolate them to a 16 game season, Maclin roughly projects to around 99 catches for 1,277 yards and 8 touchdowns. Those types of numbers would put Maclin more in line with some of the NFL's top receivers.
One potentially alarming observation from the above table on Maclin is that he steadily declined after his breakout year in 2010. However, it would be illogical to put too much stock into that because the Eagles were terrible in 2011 and 2012.
If he can manage to stay healthy and continue to produce at a level similar to his first four years, the Eagles offense won’t skip a beat. After all, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.