Maybe the best way to describe the impact DeSean Jackson has for an offense is to hear from the defensive side of the football. We know that Jackson, who returns to the Eagles after the team announced a trade with Tampa Bay on Wednesday, has led the NFL in yards per reception four times in his career, including two of the last three seasons. We know Jackson’s big-play capabilities with the football in his hands. We know the man can flat-out fly.
But how much does he change what a defense is doing?
The answer: A ton.
The Eagles learned this firsthand from the time they released him following the 2013 campaign. Jackson played against the Eagles six times in the years since (he played with Washington and Tampa Bay, of course) and won five of those games, catching 24 passes for 569 yards, averaging 23.7 yards per reception with three touchdowns. Jackson was targeted 40 times, meaning that he compiled a completion ratio of 60 percent.
That’s big-time production.
That’s altering how a defense plays its game.
“He's DeSean," then-defensive coordinator Bill Davis said in the 2015 season. "He blows the top off of everything. We've got to be aware and over the top of him and have a lot of concentration on him.”
For the record, Jackson was limited in 2015 against the Eagles, catching just four passes for 40 yards in the only game he played against Philadelphia that season. And while that looks like the Eagles did a good job on Jackson – who had roasted the team to the tune of nine receptions, 243 yards and one touchdown in two games in the 2014 season – the Redskins scored 38 points against the Eagles in a 38-24 win that turned out to be Chip Kelly’s finale as the team’s head coach.
For the most part, the Eagles never were able to get a handle on Jackson, even though they were well aware of his brilliance beating defenders down the field and tracking the football better than just about any other receiver in the league.
“It is something that you have to pay attention to as a defense because although he's not the number one target they have, every time he's targeted, it can be explosive,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said in 2015. “He can change a game probably quicker than all of their threats. So we have to know where he is at, at all times. His ability to stretch the field is something to be respected.”
Respected. And feared.
“He’s still fast (and) he can run,” head coach Doug Pederson said in 2016. “That’s the thing you see on film. And just throw on his highlight reel and you’re going to see the exact same receiver that we had here. DeSean is definitely a deep threat and someone you’ve got to watch out for.”
When the Eagles played in Tampa Bay in Week 2 of the 2018 season, the defense knew it had a huge challenge working against the Bucs’ explosive passing game. Tampa Bay had a big receiver in Mike Evans, a young and emerging pass catcher in Chris Godwin, a talented tight end in O.J. Howard, and Jackson, the speed merchant.
And as the Eagles prepared for that game, there were cognizant of the challenges that Jackson’s speed presented, and they said they were ready for it.
“Speed, man. He’s all about speed. There aren’t many guys out there like him. He just has that extra gear and when the ball is in the air, he’s great at tracking it and bringing it in. It’s definitely a challenge. A huge challenge,” cornerback Jalen Mills said. “You have to account for him because he’s dangerous from every part of the field. He can get ‘six’ on you real quick.”
Yeah, that’s exactly what happened. Tampa Bay used a play-action fake to get the Eagles' secondary to bite on the anticipated running play and then went over the top to Jackson, who raced past Mills and the entire defense to haul in a 75-yard catch-and-run on the game’s first play to set the tone in Tampa Bay’s 27-21 victory. Jackson caught four passes for 129 yards and the score, and when the Bucs needed him late in the game, he delivered. On a key second-and-13 play with Tampa Bay backed up at its 12-yard line with just over two minutes remaining, Jackson caught a short pass – as Mills played off the line of scrimmage respecting Jackson’s speed – and turned it into a 17-yard gain and a first down.
This is the type of impact the Eagles anticipate with Jackson back in the Midnight Green lineup. With Jackson taking the top off the defense, he’s going to be a threat to score six points as the Eagles instantly become a more dangerous – a much more dangerous – vertical passing team. Fellow pass catchers Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, Zach Ertz, and Dallas Goedert became all the more dangerous with Jackson on the field. The Eagles struggled to have a big-play, vertical element in the passing game last season, and Jackson’s presence solves that concern for 2019 and moving forward.
We all remember Jackson’s dynamism in his previous time here – the jaw-dropping speed, the electricity with the ball in his hands, the return abilities in the punt game – and Jackson has retained his elite speed in the years that have passed. He’s got to stay healthy and on the field, and he has to understand his role in a talented galaxy of skill-position players here, but the reality is that the Eagles have improved their offense a great deal with Jackson’s return.
If you don’t believe it, pay attention to what opposing defenses say this season. Jackson changes the way they will scheme against the Eagles. He’s that dynamic. The potency of the Eagles’ offense – both with a vertical receiving threat and a player who will force deep coverage to back off the line of scrimmage, thus opening some room for the running game – grows exponentially with Jackson around. The Eagles wanted Jackson, he wanted the Eagles, and the reunion after all these years is a happy one, indeed.