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What if the Eagles never released DeSean Jackson?

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DeSean Jackson is back, but how would things be different if he had never left?

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles-Minicamp Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

DeSean Jackson is back.

This year, Eagles fans will once again be able to bring their dusty ‘ol No. 10 jerseys out of their closets and celebrate the return of the little speedster who started his career in Philadelphia 11 years ago.

It’s a shame we had to be without DeSean Jackson these last five years. During that time, DeSean spent three years in Washington and piled up 2,702 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns, and then languished for two seasons in Tampa, where he added another 1,442 yards and 7 touchdowns to his tally. While away from the Eagles, he got to play with some pretty...incredible signal-callers.

  • Robert Griffin (the broken-down version)
  • Kirk Cousins
  • Colt McCoy
  • Jameis Winston
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick

Frankly, it’s amazing he was able to pile up more than 4,000 yards receiving and 21 TDs with that less-than-stellar collection of QBs.

The Eagles, meanwhile, missed Jackson while he was gone. Once he left, the team never found a suitable deep threat to replace him, so as part of our on-going “What If?” series, we ask, “What would have happened had DeSean Jackson not been released by the Eagles?”

First, it’s fair to wonder if Chip Kelly would still be coach if DeSean Jackson was never released.

When Kelly took the reigns of the team, he created an offense that was perfectly suited to Jackson’s talents. In fact, Jackson had by far the best season of his career with Kelly calling the plays. In 2013, he started all 16 games and piled up 1,332 yards in the air, tied his career-high with 9 TDs, and averaged 5.1 catches per game, also a career high.

In 2014, the first year after Jackson was dumped by Kelly, the Eagles went 10-6 but collapsed down the stretch and missed the playoffs. Jeremy Maclin emerged as the new No. 1 target and pulled in 85 balls for 1,318 yards and 10 TDs, with rookie Jordan Matthews adding 872 yards receiving and 8 more touchdowns. But Riley Cooper was the team’s No. 3 wideout that season and his 55-catch, 577-yard season wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t awesome either.

Can you imagine what a wideout trio of Jackson-Maclin-Matthews would have looked like? The Eagles did have the 6th-highest passing yards per game that season, so maybe Jackson wouldn’t have mattered all that much, but maybe it would have been enough for the Eagles to win one more game and make it into the postseason.

If Chip Kelly makes it to the playoffs in his second season, he almost certainly gets another chance after he went 6-9 before getting fired with one game left in the 2015 campaign. In that season, the team’s passing offense ranked 12th in the NFL in yards per game (255.4), and Matthews’ 997 yards receiving led all Eagles’ wideouts. Riley Cooper was 2nd on the team with 327 yards, Josh Huff was 3rd, with 312 yards, and rookie Nelson Agholor and Miles Austin (remember him?) both failed to reach 300 yards receiving.

For a team whose premise was to run quick offensive plays and pile up the points and yardage, that level of production from the wideouts was embarrassing.

Sure, Jackson missed seven games that season with an injury and managed to accumulate 528 yards while averaging just 17.6 yards per catch — that’s low for DeSean. It’s hard to believe the Eagles would have been as bad as they were if Jackson had been on the team. Of course, Sam Bradford and Mark Sanchez were the QBs, so it’s possible Jackson wouldn’t have made much difference there, either.

But what if he had? Would the Eagles have kept Sam Bradford? Let’s say Jackson stays healthy and performs admirably in Kelly’s offense that third year. Is it enough to boost Bradford’s stock to the point they no longer felt it was necessary to make two trades to draft Carson Wentz?

Obviously, Kelly’s ouster opened the door for Doug Pederson to take over the reigns, and it’s clear Jackson would have been a big contributor to an offense in 2016 that was stagnant. Matthews’ 804 yards receiving led all Eagles wideouts, and the rest of the group consisted of a massively struggling Agholor, Dorial Green-Beckham, Bryce Treggs, and Paul Turner.

Would the Eagles have made the playoffs in Wentz’ rookie season had Jackson been his deep threat? Possibly. The biggest weakness of the Eagles that season was an offense that could not move the ball through the air. Wentz desperately needed a player exactly like Jackson to throw to, and maybe Pederson finds a way to sneak into the postseason in his rookie year.

In 2017, the year it all came together, Torrey Smith provided just enough of a deep threat to help Wentz and Nick Foles make plenty of plays on their way to Super Bowl 52. And of course, we know how that ended. But perhaps the season where Jackson would have had the most impact was 2018.

The Eagles struggled to make big plays through the air all season. They had no deep threat, as Mike Wallace’s fractured fibula in Week 2 ended his Eagles career with nary a catch to his name. Wentz and Foles used the intermediate game and two tight-end sets to matriculate the ball down the field, but it was clear they were missing the big play.

Last year, the Eagles ranked 15th in the NFL in “explosive plays” through the air (passing plays of 25 yards or more). While that was an improvement from their Super Bowl-winning season (21st in 2017), a more explosive running game and an unusually great third down conversion rate and red zone efficiency helped cover up their inability to hit the deep ball in ‘17. Last year, they regressed in all three of those areas, and having Jackson as the team’s No. 2 receiver and his league-leading 18.9 yards per catch could have been the difference in at least one or two games that ultimately might have helped the Eagles win the division and avoid playing New Orleans in the divisional round of the playoffs.

Heck, maybe Jackson helps Foles beat the Saints in that game and gets them to the NFC Championship.

One thing that certainly would have happened: had Jackson not been forced to leave, we’d be talking about him as the greatest wide receiver in franchise history.

Jackson has piled up 10,261 receiving yards in his career so far, which would shatter Harold Carmichael’s team record of 8,978. His 589 receptions is exactly same number Carmichael retired with, so with his next catch, he’d lead all Eagles pass catchers in receptions, too. Carmichael would still have him beat in touchdowns (79-53), but when taken in totality, Jackson would be a lock to go down as the team’s greatest wide receiver of all time.

And hey, it could still happen, although catching Carmichael will be tough. Jackson remains 2,861 yards and 233 receptions behind as an Eagle, so it’s unlikely he’ll be the franchise’s all-time leader in those offensive categories.

Nevertheless, Jackson is back and he has a chance to add to his legacy. Maybe this year, he wins the championship he might have won if he had never been forced to leave.