Welcome to NFL football! Here are the three numbers I’m looking at for the Eagles’ opening game against Washington.
That’s how many receiving yards the Eagles gave up to a rookie third-round receiver last year in Week 1: Terry McLaurin. McLaurin wouldn’t beat that total until Week 16, when he pulled through with 130 yards...against against the Eagles. Over a quarter of his receiving yards for the season came through on those two games.
McLaurin was a problem for the Eagles last year, for which this year they think they have a new answer: trade acquisition Darius Slay, who only gave up 42 yards to McLaurin last year when mirroring him across the formation in Detroit’s Week 12 matchup with Washington.
Darius Slay shadows in 2019 pic.twitter.com/hJpzo0NWvo— Jeff Ratcliffe (@JeffRatcliffe) March 19, 2020
Despite generally holding McLaurin a quieter outing, with only 3 catches on 10 targets, Slay had praise for McLaurin in the offseason, saying that only Los Angeles WR Keenan Allen was a tougher receiver to handle in man coverage. That really is quite the compliment when you look at the other names for which Slay was responsible last year.
We should expect McLaurin to still get a significant volume and win some reps against Slay, but he’s had two 65+ yard touchdown catches against the Eagles in just two games. If Slay can deny that play alone, it will cut McLaurin’s production nearly in half, and make scoring a longer and more tedious proposition for what many expect to be a shaky Washington offense. Furthermore, the Football Team was unable to acquire a steady second target beyond McLaurin this offseason — their projected Target 2 is either 2019 UDFA slot receiver Steven Sims or 2020 third-round gadget pick Antonio Gibson. Without an explosive McLaurin outing, this entire passing offense might sputter.
The Eagles defense was the worst in the NFL last year against outside receivers, and never was that weakness more clearly exploited than by Washington. Slay was brought in to solve that problem, and this is his first gut check.
That’s how many career carries are currently on the Washington roster, and they only belong to two players: Peyton Barber (551) and JD McKissic (88). Beyond those two, the Football Team is running 2019 fourth-rounder Bryce Love and 2020 third-rounder Antonio Gibson.
Washington lost their two primary backs from last season in Adrian Peterson (recent cut) and Chris Thompson (free agency to Jacksonville), cutting Peterson in part because of the confidence they had in some of their younger players. At different times in camp this last few weeks, there has been hype for Love, Gibson, and McKissic, all of whom have the requisite speed to make plays in Scott Turner’s backfield-heavy, schemed-touches offense.
But the inexperience is a big deal in Washington. Love was a Heisman candidate runner at Stanford before injuries began to sap at his explosiveness, and Gibson was a gadget player at Memphis who only carried the ball 33 times. With an inexperienced passer in Dwayne Haskins at the helm, a veteran and predictable running game is the ideal safety net. Washington eschewed that for the sake of getting their more explosive dual threats the ball, and now they’ll have to live with an inexperienced backfield behind an offensive line with some turnover. Against an Eagles defense that was third in DVOA last year against the run, there is little incentive for Washington to establish the run here in Week 1.
Here’s a crazy number for you: it’s DeSean Jackson’s average receiving output in Week 1s over the last four years — it’s the best average among all receivers in the league. DeSean is actually the fourth-most productive Week 1 wide receiver in the last decade, behind Julio Jones, A.J. Green, and Antonio Brown, in terms of raw output.
What does this mean? Probably nothing real. It is interesting to note that another weirdly good Week 1 receiver is Sammy Watkins, another deep threat receiver. Is there credence to the idea that sleepy legs and cobwebs open up the deep ball just a little bit more in the first week of the season? It’s probably just a narrative explanation for some data noise, but it’s fun to think about regardless.
Jackson’s most recent Week 1 stunner was the last full game he played as an Eagle, before a lingering core muscle injury took the rest of the season away from him. Jackson caught 8 of 9 balls for a whopping 154 yards and 2 touchdowns in the Week 1 Eagles’ win over Washington last season — back in 2013, his last year with the Eagles, he grabbed 7 of 9 passes for 104 yards and a score, again against Washington.
There is no rhyme or reason to Jackson’s elite Week 1 performances, but with no Alshon Jeffery and only young players behind him in the WR room, expect Jackson to be a featured part of the offensive passing attack. Washington doesn’t have a top corner who can handle him, and the Wentz showed even in those limited plays last year that he’d be willing to air it out for his new deep threat.
134 yards? Maybe too many. But expect a big Week 1 from DeSean.