Harmony at Eagles Training Camp

All rookies and veterans reported to training camp at Lehigh this year. That makes it only the third time in the last decade that the Eagles have had everyone show up.

A brief rundown of your holdouts and no-shows:

2012:
2011: DeSean Jackson
2010: Brandon Graham
2009: Jeremy Maclin
2008: Shawn Andrews
2007:
2006: Broderick Bunkley
2005: Brian Westbrook*
2004:
2003: Jerome McDougle

*Terrell Owens actually reported on time. But it was worse than if he hadn’t.

Adventures at Summer Camp: Lehigh Day 2

Because someone has to read all the news coming out of the Eagles training camp.

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When double-negatives attack. Bobby April told the press, in as roundabout a way as he could manage, that DeSean Jackson won’t be the primary punt returner anymore, now that he has his big contract:

"I don’t think that we’re not going to use him," April said. "I just don’t know if he’s going to be the primary guy. … He’ll continue to work at the positiion. He just won’t get as much work as he normally does."

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Can’t lower the bar enough. April also said that while he was looking to bring in competition for Chas Henry, the former Florida punter did well for a rookie. That is simply not true. Among his fellow rookies, Henry had the second-lowest net average and tied for the lowest ratio of punts inside the 20 yard line to touchbacks, a rough measure of placement and touch. Needless to say, those stats look even worse compared to veterans.

UPDATE: Eagles signed former Cowboy Mat McBriar.

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My kingdom for a Washburn post-game press conference. Jim Washburn is so candid. He talked to the press yesterday, and the quotes were flying. On Mike Patterson coming back from brain surgery:

"Mike Patterson might be one of the best people I’ve ever had," said Washburn. "He doesn’t have to come to these rookie meetings at night and in the afternoon, he doesn’t have to be there, but guess what? He’s there. I said, ‘Mike, you don’t have to be here,’ and he said, ‘I like to be here.’ He likes football. He’s a good one. God dang, we miss him now."

On Antonio Dixon:

"I was so disappointed," said Washburn. "I couldn’t tell if he had any talent… I couldn’t tell if the guy was a good player or not. I couldn’t tell if he was a good athlete. He weighed 365 or something like that. His back was killing him. He was out of shape. I couldn’t even tell if he was a player. This spring, he worked his butt off. He’s down, I don’t know how much he weighs, he’s maybe 330 from 360 or whatever it was. He’s in so much better shape and I went, ‘Wow, this guy’s got some quickness.’ He likes to play and he’s tough, but he’s got ability."

On Trent Cole:

“He told me when I first got here, ‘I ain’t rotating,’” Washburn said Tuesday at Eagles training camp. “Said it right up there in that meeting room. I said, ‘Yes, you are … or your ass ain’t going to play.’ He’s a great kid, Trent.”

On Brandon Graham:

"He changed some of the habits in his life, I think," Washburn said. "He got serious. … I don’t know, [he’s] a mild-mannered guy. He was a good player in college, he was. I watched every game he played in college for a year or two. He was a good player. Should be a good player here. Lost his weight. Got too heavy.” Graham, of course, is coming back from knee surgery after losing most of 2011.

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Tearjerker. If you’re not rooting for lifelong Eagles fan Vinny Curry before, you will Be after you read Jeff McLane’s article about him. Plus, bonus Washburn quotes!

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Mini-Asante? Multiple reports talked about UDFA Cliff Harris picking off a few passes during yesterday’s practices, putting him out to an early lead in the Training Camp Darling category. But let’s not go crazy here. There are no good wide receivers at camp, and some of the picks just demonstrate how bad Trent Edwards is.

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On the other hand, I’m starting to let the continued positive reports on Mychal Kendricks get to me. He seems much more prepared than Casey Matthews was, at any rate.

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Poorly Written Articles Edition. Bill Barnwell gives us what he pretends to be a statistical analysis of the top running backs in the game, but somehow concludes that Ray Rice is better than LeSean McCoy without demonstrating any number that backs that up.

Even less insightful was the book excerpt in Fast Company about how Jeff Lurie turned around the Eagles. What a waste of time.

Adventures at Summer Camp: Lehigh Day 1

Because someone has to read all the news coming out of the Eagles training camp.

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Confirmed: DeSean Jackson let frustration over his contract hurt his performance:

“Human nature-wise, yes it affected him,’’ Culley said. “It did. He tried not to let it affect him. Sometimes he didn’t do a very good job of that. It affected him in meetings. It affected him on the field. There were days when it didn’t. But it made him inconsistent. And that’s where the human nature part of it comes in.”

“I saw a couple of times last year where I saw him maybe trying to maybe save himself because (he was thinking), ‘I’m not under contract and I don’t want to get hurt,’’’ Culley said. “I don’t think there was a fear factor involved. I think it was more, ‘I don’t want to get hurt because I don’t have a contract.’ The first two-and-a-half years he was here, that wasn’t an issue. A couple of times last year, that came up. And I believe it came up simply because of that.”

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Punters, ahoy. The Eagles brought in not one, not two, not three, but four veteran punters for tryouts yesterday. It’s not that surprising once you understand how bad Chas Henry was last year. Reuben Frank says the most likely candidate to sign is former Pro Bowl Cowboy Mat McBriar. I honestly didn’t realize he had fallen off last year and was cut. Turns out, he couldn’t lift his foot.

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The Felony That Wasn’t. I love how the charges were dropped against Dion Lewis because the DA concluded there was “no evidence a fire alarm was ever pulled.”

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Backup Running Backs Will Push… Who? I absolutely don’t understand where this headline comes from. Sheil’s replacement isn’t looking so hot.

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Speaking of Mr. Kapadia, he brings us a great quote from Howard Mudd on where Danny Watkins is in his second year. Sounds like the mental side of the game is the real roadblock for our friendly neighborhood fireman:

“Comfort in the position, eliminating doubt about himself,” Mudd said. “That just happens to players. That just happens. That’s part of the growing process. I call that the valley of darkness. You get somewhere and then you start doubting yourself, doubting, doubting… and then the ball is snapped and you don’t have a clue where you are. You can be very amateurish, if you will. All of a sudden, it starts to click again and you quit doubting yourself. Do well, and then all of a sudden, for whatever reason, you get there. So Danny, that’s what I think the offseason’s done for him.”

Jimmy Kempski tells us that Mudd also alluded to the Vandervelde-Reynolds backup center competition as the position battle he’s most looking forward too. I’m not sure if that’s positive or depressing. Final Mudd note: I discount every positive thing he says about Demetress Bell by half. There’s only one Jason Peters, and unfortunately he couldn’t keep his balance on a Roll-A-Bout.

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In other meta-reportage, Jimmy needs to stop wasting his time talking to guys like Keenan Clayton after practice. Clayton’s competing with Moise Fokou for the coveted “last linebacker cut” trophy. Then again, at least our favorite NFC bEast blogger didn’t get stiffed like ol’ timer Paul Domowitch.

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Rampant Tight End Speculation! The Eagles have now been linked to Visanthe Shiancoe and (gag) Jeremy Shockey. Raise your hand if you’re shocked that the Brett Brackett hype was purely media-driven. No one? Good.

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Andy Reid Weight Loss Watch. He totally walked home from practice, guys.

How to Get DeSean Jackson Wide Open

Jimmy Kempski has a great breakdown of a cool formation the Eagles put together last year that worked at least a few times with big results. It’s also a testament to how quickly these innovations can be figured out by the defense.

Assuming you’ve all gone and read his piece (I’ll wait), it’s worth noting that this is the type of play that works really well for the Eagles when they have plenty of space to execute. Defenders have to respect the speed of the Eagles receivers up the field, opening up space in the middle. Unfortunately, that advantage breaks down in the red zone.

When Conspiracy Theories Trump the Party Line

Joe Banner

You can label the Andy Reid-Joe Banner power struggle an unfounded conspiracy theory. And you can buy the general storyline presented for Banner leaving. But you have to admit that there are serious holes in that party line.

According to Jeff McLane’s report, which might as well be the official press release, Banner approached Jeff Lurie a year ago about a succession plan. Why would he want to leave the Eagles, a team he built for the better part of the last two decades, a team owned by his childhood friend and in which he was the unquestioned CEO?

The official line is that he wants to “get involved with the world of buying and selling a sports team with the possibility of becoming part of a group that buys a team.” Geoff Mosher got Banner on the phone and the former team president said that he has been less involved over the last few years:

"I spend a lot of my time right now managing people that report to me and a modest amount of time doing things myself. More passive role than this same job was not long ago. I wanna be so busy I don’t have time to breathe. That’s my personality."

Sorry, but I just don’t buy it. Less than ten months ago, Banner was at the forefront of the Eagles efforts to sign one of the most heralded free agent classes in modern memory. You can’t listen to this interview with Mike Florio and tell me that Banner was not personally involved in every aspect of those decisions and negotiations. “More passive role”? I don’t think so.

The changes clearly began this offseason, as Les Bowen wrote and McLane papered over. The extensions for longtime Eagles, the new willingness to talk with DeSean Jackson, the relatively quick deal struck with LeSean McCoy — all of it was done with Banner completely unseen. Howie Roseman became the point person for negotiations and Reid took an unprecedented, larger role.

Drew Rosenhaus’s comments about his negotiations over Evan Mathis, Jackson, and McCoy set a lot of the Banner talk in motion, and Paul Domowitch went back to him today in a great story:

"Howie really handled exclusively the negotiations for DeSean and Evan and LeSean," Rosenhaus said. "Joe wasn’t directly involved in any of those discussions from the start of the offseason. I actually negotiated (undrafted free agent safety) Phillip Thomas’s contract with Joe. I remember him calling and joking about the fact that he wanted to work on at least one deal with me this offseason."

"We struggled up to this offseason really to get the club to work on an extension with DeSean," Rosenhaus said. "The team really wasn’t aggressive as it related to DeSean’s negotiations until this offseason. I don’t know if there was a power struggle or not. There’s no way for me to know that. But I do know that things changed in terms of the Eagles’ approach to DeSean after the season."

Those comments suggest that Banner has been marginalized since the end of the disastrous 2011 season, a season for which he was directly responsible for many of the controversial decisions — free agency splurge, stonewalling DeSean, angering Asante Samuel (basically everything up to Juan Castillo). You can connect the dots.

Domo reads the tea leaves and argues that Reid wanted Jackson extended and blamed much of last season’s locker room troubles on Banner’s inaction on that front. Les’s piece today takes a slightly different route, arguing that Lurie “was genuinely at his wits’ end over the Eagles’ sour image in Philadelphia, the inability to connect with the fan on the street.” His solution was to isolate Banner and loosen up Reid.

Either theory makes more sense than Banner’s self-proclaimed reasoning. If he had dropped out of football to pursue his philanthropic interests, one might understand. But if you want to stay in football, you don’t leave that job willingly — especially without a new, seemingly better position already lined up.

I’m sure it was painful for Lurie to take the reigns away from his friend, but that’s the kind of decision he has to make as an owner. And by delaying the announcement and concocting an elaborate and not-entirely-convincing exit story, Lurie gives Banner as gracious a departure as he can manage. The new “Special Advisor to the Owner” even has a fall-back job at NovaCare for as long as he needs.

We will never know the full truth, but let’s not be naive. There’s the official story, and then there are the explanations that actually make sense.

Photo from the Philadelphia Eagles.

Small Fish in a Big Pond

Tommy Lawlor on UDFA Damaris Johnson:

Damaris is very quick and he has a good burst. He is able to gain initial separation. He just lacks the long speed you would ideally prefer. One thing I really like about him is that he plays fast. There is very little dancing and hesitation when Johnson gets the ball. That’s partly why he’s such a good KOR. He gets it and goes. That style of play actually makes him look faster than he is. One other thing about that…Johnson is able to make cuts at close to full speed. This is where his size is a benefit. He’s got good body control and is able to stop/start quickly and change directions on the move.

Damaris does look much faster on tape than his 40 time indicates — and he better be, considering his tiny stature. On a broader note, when was the last time the Eagles had so many potential contributors who were small in stature? I’m not sure anyone other than Barry Sanders did as much as Brian Westbrook at 5’8”, but this team has DeSean Jackson, Dion Lewis, and whoever emerges from the Johnson-Chad Hall roster battle. And that’s just on offense. Brian Rolle is one of the smallest linebackers in the NFL, and the slot corner competition is between two 5’9” players.

A Changed Attitude in the Eagles Front Office

Andy Reid

In the aftermath of the relatively quick and painless contract agreement with LeSean McCoy last week, the scuttlebutt has centered on the changes in the Eagles front office. All the key figures remain the same, but Joe Banner was nowhere to be found and words during and after the press conference suggested that Andy Reid had an increased role in the negotiations.

So what, exactly, has changed? For that, we have opposing takes from rivals/colleagues Les Bowen and Jeff McLane. Bowen takes the angle that Banner is increasingly isolated from the public eye and, seemingly, negotiations. This marks a relatively large change in the organization. McLane sees it differently:

Most of the changes within the front office have centered on public relations and can be summed up as such: Andy Reid has been more accommodating, Howie Roseman has been nudged into the spotlight, and Joe Banner has taken a step back behind the curtain.

The key thing that McLane omits (or, I suspect, willfully ignores) in his contrarian analysis is that changing the public perception and the outward attitude is a change in strategy. Of course we’re not talking about a radical front office change of direction — it’s all the same guys at NovaCare, after all. But the idea that Howie Roseman is handling negotiations because he’s less of an abrasive jerk at the table means something. Reid’s presence may be a facade placed on top of the same front office, but if it changed how McCoy, Roseman, and Drew Rosenhaus interacted, that matters.

Whether Reid and Banner purposely created or merely fell into their good cop/bad cop roles, it was obvious that they believed it worked. I expect that the combination of DeSean Jackson’s sulking and Asante Samuel railing against the guys upstairs prompted a reevaluation of that strategy. After such an awful season, revisions were required both on the field and in the front office — a marginalization of Banner and alignment of Reid’s player-friendly attitude with Howie Roseman’s less intimidating demeanor serves that goal.

The results, despite what McLane says, haven’t been the same:

That’s been the blueprint for years. Last year’s free-agent frenzy wasn’t the first time the Eagles spent freely. This year’s taking care of their own wasn’t the first time they rewarded their best loyal charges.

That’s accurate in general. But in recent years the Eagles have often seemed disinterested in renegotiating veteran contracts (Cole, Herremans) or extending young stars (Jackson, McCoy). And last season’s free agent splurge was especially out of character. The team is always in the market for top players, but rarely have they gone out and bought multiple veteran starters. Nor did the front office pretend that anything was business as usual with that last training camp.

Making extensions a priority this year, even for players for whom they could have forced to play for their current deals, shows a re-focused strategy that stems from the re-organization at the top. It’s only a change in attitude, but that more positive demeanor makes a difference. Just sticking with McCoy, Bowen is correct in his counterfactual Banner-led negotiations. Things probably wouldn’t have gone quite so smoothly:

They could have stuck to their guns on the fact that Houston’s Arian Foster, whose deal proved to be the benchmark, had negotiated that contract as a restricted free agent, a crucial difference. They could have made McCoy choose between either signing a contract that was a solid financial notch below Foster or risking injury this season, to possibly end up being franchised, with no long-term commitment at all. They could have pressed their advantage a lot harder.

Jackson looked like he was headed for a Jeremiah Trotter-esque walk out of town. Cole might have grown as unhappy as his former teammate Sheldon Brown. And McCoy seemed destined for a classic Brian Westbrook holdout. That none of those things came to pass speaks to a positive change within the organization. You can try to hide it behind a “business as usual” or “just public relations” tagline, but the results say otherwise.

Photo from Getty.

Andy Reid Gets LeSean McCoy’s Deal Done

LeSean McCoy

Big sigh of relief, everybody. LeSean McCoy signed a long term contract extension with the Eagles yesterday: five years, $45 million, and $21 million guaranteed. Rather than be a free agent next season, McCoy is locked up through age 29 — even if some of the money toward the back is likely to be restructured at best.

It’s a day to celebrate the Eagles keeping yet another valuable contributor — and not just retaining Evan Mathis, or making Trent Cole happy. This is a vitally important move on the field and in the locker room. DeSean Jackson’s situation last year was no fun at all, and it’s good to see that the front office learned from their mistakes and locked up McCoy before things got ugly.

That’s actually the biggest behind-the-scenes news of the day. Not the actual contract, but what it took to get there. As Les Bowen reports, Drew Rosenhaus made it clear that Andy Reid, not Howie Roseman, made this deal happen:

"When we we were working on this deal, coach Reid was sitting in on the meetings. It wasn’t so much that he was taking sides, he just wanted to see it get done. So I think coach Reid really was the difference."

So much for “on the hot seat.” In what was apparently an unconventional move for him, Reid participated in the McCoy negotiations. There’s only one conclusion you can draw from such news — that Reid has actually consolidated power over Roseman this offseason, rather than relinquishing it.

It’s a common refrain that players like to play for Reid and think he’s on their side. Asante Samuel was the most recent example of this phenomenon: bashing the front office (Roseman and Joe Banner), while reserving only sweet words for his coach. It’s easy to break that down as players falling too easily into a good cop-bad cop situation, where Reid is just as cold-hearted behind the scenes but maintains a happy demeanor in the locker room.

Unless it’s actually true. Maybe Reid really does care more about his players, would rather give up a few million extra in contract talks than see things get acrimonious. Maybe he doesn’t need to feel like he “won” the negotiations, as Rosenhaus described Roseman yesterday.

One might say that’s weakness, and it is to a degree. But after all the drama the Eagles have gone through in the last year, putting free agents ahead of their own stars and reaping the rewards for that, it’s a weakness they could probably use a little bit more of.

Photo from Getty.

DeSean Jackson and the Red Zone Offense

Tommy Lawlor:

I’d love to see DeSean Jackson make a RZ impact, but I’m doubtful. He’s just not at his best moving in traffic and confined spaces. He can be a good decoy.

I know DeSean is at his best running past defenders 30 yards downfield, but the Eagles inability to get him open in the red zone continues to shock me. This is not a player with just straight-line speed; we’ve all seen him make insane moves in small spaces on punt returns. How can Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg not find creative ways to get him open down by the goal line?

Furthermore, if the Eagles red zone offense really hinges on the performance of backup tight ends, fourth wide receivers, and practice squad-caliber fullbacks, that is a coaching failure to the highest degree.

Post-Draft Position Breakdown: Wide Receiver

What the Eagles did: The Eagles love to load up on wide receivers in the offseason, mainly (I assume) to take up all the tiring practice repetitions running up and down the field, working on routes with the quarterbacks. Right now they have 14 wideouts on the roster, most of whom we probably don’t need to worry about learning their names.

There are really only six receivers who, barring injury, are competing for regular season jobs, and the top three are already set. Dave Spadaro reports that DeSean Jackson is acting Iike a totally different man at the NovaCare complex now that he has a new contract. Prorated over the three games he missed due to injury, Jeremy Maclin would have had 78 receptions for 1,057 yards and 6 TDs last year. Hopefully a healthy offseason will allow him to top those numbers. Meanwhile, Jason Avant posted his best numbers at age 28 last season, so you can pencil him in the slot once more.

However, this great core group of wide receivers still has a major weakness: red zone production. All three are at their worst in that area of the field — which is why, not for the first time, we’re looking to some bigger wideouts to step up in that area.

First up is the holdover Riley Cooper. Due to injuries, the Eagles actually gave Cooper a lot of snaps last year, 330 according to Pro Football Focus. Yet ‘Sunshine’ did little to justify those extra looks. So in the draft this year, Howie Roseman added some competition for that big receiver job we’ll affectionately call the honorary Hank Baskett role. Marvin McNutt, the Eagles sixth round pick out of Iowa, has a similar build and athleticism as Cooper. It will be interesting to see if he can displace the other big man.

What I would have done: Bringing on another big wide receiver was necessary, considering Michael Vick’s strengths and Cooper’s lack of production. But I would have also liked to see the Eagles draft a multidimensional threat to supplant the bland Chad Hall. Hall has value on this team as a trick play threat and backup kick returner, but the team could have found someone with more speed and explosiveness to fill that role. Brandon Boykin will have a lot on his plate at cornerback in his rookie year, but I wonder if he could fill in on offense as well, like he did in college.

Way-too-early prediction: The Eagles might be able to stretch their roster to accommodate six receivers, as they did last year due to injury. If not, I’m unsure which of the three backups could see the door. McNutt would certainly have trouble being worse than Cooper as a wide receiver, but he’ll have to replace him on special teams as well, which might be harder to do. Then there’s Chad Hall, whom Andy Reid just can’t seem to cut loose. My prediction would be that Cooper is let go, but that’s not one made with very much confidence.

Shady Contract Dealings

Paul Domowitch:

In fact, last fall, McCoy fired Rosenhaus twice, before eventually rehiring him. According to a source close to McCoy, part of it had to do with the fact that Rosenhaus was doing nothing for the running back off the field as far as marketing and endorsement opportunities. But a much bigger reason was the fact that Rosenhaus tried to persuade the running back to accept a $6 million-a-year contract offer the Eagles were dangling in front of him.

Like the unnamed agent Domo talks to in this article, I perceive little leverage for McCoy now that DeSean Jackson signed a long term deal. The 2013 franchise tag is just waiting for Shady, and more importantly the short life span of a running back means he can’t afford to wait for guaranteed money. That said, I find it vaguely troubling that McCoy rejected a $6 million per year deal that Rosenhaus recommended back in October.

By waiting, McCoy unquestionably added to his value, propping up his stats closer to that of Arian Foster and his new $8 million per year deal. Still, back in October I projected that a six year, $32 million contract would have been perfectly reasonable. It makes me wonder what Shady thinks he’s worth now.

Making One's Own Bed

Geoff Mosher:

If your notebook never left the back pocket and your recorder stayed off, you could heard the gripes and complaints from some prominent, homegrown players who felt that the Eagles were more financially friendly to outsiders than their own.

It didn’t go over well years ago when millions were splurged on free agents such as Darren Howard, Stacy Andrews and Chris Clemons – guys whose performances never matched their paychecks – while Eagles-drafted players worked under modest long-term deals that paid out generous bonus money up front but looked outdated one or two years later when the market changed.

Without directly admitting it, the Eagles took a giant step toward diffusing what could have been an explosive locker room situation this season by extending the contracts of Todd Herremans, Trent Cole and DeSean Jackson on the first few days of free agency and then bringing back Evan Mathis.

The truth is that last year with Jackson and Asante Samuel, the Eagles already had an “explosive locker room situation” on their hands. This reversal (return?) is by far the biggest storyline of the offseason so far.

Analyzing DeSean Jackson’s New Contract

DeSean Jackson

Two weeks ago, I speculated that the Eagles franchise tag and DeSean Jackson’s acceptance of it could help bring the two sides together on a long term deal. With the threat of separation and the lack of respect behind them, it appears that’s exactly what happened. Reports differ on whether Jackson actually signed the tender or not, but regardless they were able to find common ground before it came to that.

From looking at the details of the contract, as reported by Pro Football Talk, it seems that both sides compromised somewhat. The Eagles came up from their absurdly low $6 million per year reported offer, and in exchange Jackson didn’t extract the maximum guaranteed money he likely could have received on the open market.

As it stands now, the deal (before Pro Bowl/Super Bowl escalators) looks like so:

2012: $10 million signing bonus plus $1 million base salary/workout bonus.
2013: $7 million salary/workout, $4 million fully guaranteed with rest for injury only.
2014: $10.5 million salary/workout.
2015: $10 million salary/workout.
2016: $8.5 million salary/workout.

What it comes down to, as far as I can tell, is basically a guaranteed two year, $18 million contract with three team option years in which Jackson’s paid very well in base salary but the team can move on from him if necessary.

It clearly helped to have other wide receivers signing long term deals recently. Look at the guaranteed money those players received:

Stevie Johnson, Bills: $18 million.
Marques Colston, Saints: $19 million.
Pierre Garçon, Redskins: $13-18 million.
Vincent Jackson, Bucs: $26 million.

DeSean didn’t get Vincent Jackson money, but he slots in quite comfortably among the other top wide receivers. DJacc’s full contract over five years is bigger than the other guys, but the money at the end isn’t guaranteed, making it somewhat of a “prove it” deal for the wide receiver. If he keeps his head on straight and plays up to his potential, Jackson could make more than most of the rest of them over the life of the deal.

All in all, it’s a happy day for Eagles fans. You simply don’t win in the NFL without retaining your top talent, and the Eagles came perilously close to not doing so. Now the nearly two year drama of Jackson’s status is over, and with any luck he will take to the field with a renewed purpose, showing us that his best years are yet to come.

Photo from Getty.

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