November 18, 2012; Landover, MD, USA; Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson (10) and tight end Brent Celek (87) walk on to the field prior to the game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Eagles Offseason Outlook: Analyzing Wide Receivers, Tight Ends

Well, it’s a brand new day, and with John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens hanging on for a tough Super Bowl victory over the Jim Harbaugh led San Francisco 49er’s, it’s also the start of a brand new offseason.

Diving into our look at the roster and how it’s going to shape up under Chip Kelly, we take stock of the Wide Receiver and Tight End positions.

Desean Jackson said Friday that he and Chip Kelly had recently spoken, and that Chip has big plans for the young man, in the mold of his own small but blazingly fast wide receiver/running back/return specialist from this past collegiate season, De’Anthony Thomas.

I don’t really think Thomas and Jackson are that similar.  Yes, they’re short, light and speedy.  But Thomas is stockier and Desean has better short area quickness.  That being said, I sincerely hope what Desean says is true, because he’s a special talent who needs to be utilized as such.

Yes, he’s been darn near non-existent in the red zone, averaging about .22 touchdowns per game for his career (h/t to Paul Domowitch on that one).  But I blame Marty and Andy as much as Desean for that.  It certainly never felt like they were trying all that hard to creatively get the ball to him in that area of the field.

Of course, with a guy like Desean you’re always going to be playing a game of attrition to a certain extent.  He really doesn’t have a major injury history other than this year, having only missed 4 games due to injury during the previous 3 years.  But he’s still a smaller guy.  And as this seasons injury shows, the more touches he gets, the more exposure he’ll have to jarring hits, the higher the chances of a severe injury.

Which is exactly why you’re not going to see Desean doing a fair amount of the things De’Anthony did, like running the ball up the gut, or basically acting like a normal running back in any way.  Desean doesn’t have the requisite size or field vision to get a hand off in the backfield and rush straight to the line.

But still, he’s a football player, and an extremely talented one at that.  He needs his touches and he needs them to come in a variety of ways.

My assumption is we’ll see Desean more frequently do things the Eagles previously had him doing but to a fuller extent, i.e.; taking a handoff in motion or on an end around and running toward the sideline looking for a crease to cut it up field, bubble screens, quick slants that take advantage of his otherworldly initial burst of speed.

Essentially things that will get the ball in his hands immediately, as opposed to always downfield, though I’m sure plenty of those deep fly’s and double moves will be utilized as well.

Beyond Desean, I believe Riley Cooper will continue to see his role expand, as will Damaris Johnson (Who I also think is going to help fill the De’Anthony Thomas role).  Cooper provides a larger body while still having a good amount of speed.  He’s not going to pull away from many defensive backs but, after watching Anquan Boldin make the 49er’s secondary look bad time and again as he outmuscled them for the ball, I think Chip can and will find a place for Riley.

Johnson on the other hand is a small but blazingly quick guy whose best with the ball in space.  Sounds kind of like Desean, huh?  But the fact is, he’s actually much closer in frame to De’Anthony Thomas than Desean is.  If anything, he’s more likely to take on the RB/Wide receiver role.  He’s short enough, tough enough and (This is going to sound bad but I totally don’t mean it as a negative) expendable enough that lining him up in the backfield may not be such a bad proposition.

I say expendable meaning, talented though he may be, he’s a piece, a cog in the machine, that can be replaced if need be.  Basically, he doesn’t possess Desean’s overall elite talent level, but he provides an important, but replaceable, Darren Sproles-like presence on the field.  It’s one that you could probably plug and play with a variety of players, but it’s vital and will certainly help you score points.

Guys like Jason Avant and Marvin McNutt are harder to place, albeit for opposite reasons.  Jason is older and while he seemed to be rejuvenated by the increased reps brought on by the injury to Desean and the insertion of Nick Foles into the line up, may have seen his best days gone and thus may be hard to keep around.  He’s a reliable and respected locker room presence and offers value on special teams, but the fact is even when he was younger he wasn’t exactly a speedy guy, and with a new coach coming in who will look to bring in his own guys, it may be curtains for Avant.

Marvin McNutt and BJ Cunningham (Practice squad) on the other hand are almost entirely unknowns.  Both are bigger bodied receivers and both were rookies this year, McNutt being a sixth round draft choice out of Iowa and Cunningham being undrafted out of Michigan State.  Like I said, watching Anquan Boldin use mediocre speed but strong ball skills to manhandle the 49er’s last night makes it entirely possible that one or both of these guys could survive and thrive under Chip Kelly.  Or they could be released immediately.  Tough call.

Perhaps the toughest call of all though is Jeremy Maclin.  There’s no doubting his immense talent, but up to this point it sure seems like he’s only been able to realize a portion of it.  Now, whether we can attribute this to poor to mediocre quarterbacking, the health scare he dealt with prior to the 2011 season, or simply his own lack of focus, the point is that Chip is not going to care about the draft status of the prior regimes players.

Maclin has promise.  And he, like Jason Avant, seemed to take a pretty big step forward when Foles took the helm.  And of course there’s the all important stat that he is only the “eighth wide receiver in NFL history to amass at least 55 catches and 750 yards in each of his first four seasons, joining Gary Clark, Larry Fitzgerald, Joey Galloway, Marvin Harrison, Keyshawn Johnson, Sterling Sharpe and Randy Moss”.

That sure is one heck of a list to join.  But Jeremy’s also never broken 1,000 yards in a season, so he’s a bit tough to project.  That being said, I think all the talk of he and Desean being too similar and the Eagles possibly entertaining the idea of trading him is ridiculous.

I think he stays and has a good or maybe even great year, especially if Foles sticks at QB (More on that in a later edition of the series…What a teaser, huh?).  Maybe after next season as his rookie deal winds down we revisit his status on the team.  But for now I think he stays and helps to turn around what has become a talented but under-achieving group.

-Tight end I feel to be pretty cut and dry.  Brent Celek is what he is.  He’s tough, durable, somewhat athletic, with sometimes questionable hands but a very strong locker room presence that is rounding into a leadership role.  He is one half of what you need out of the tight end position in todays NFL.

Clay Harbor is, to say the last, underwhelming.  He’s got the physical tools.  And as the Cincinnati game this year shows, when he broke bones in his back but kept playing, he’s tough to boot.  But he’s got a problem with drops and he just doesn’t seem to make a play when a play is there to be made.

He needs to be pushed, and not by an undrafted free agent from Penn State that used to be a wide receiver.  He needs legitimate competition, especially in a league where guys like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez provide serious red zone threats for their teams.

I would look for the Eagles to draft a guy and sign a free agent like Tennessee’s Jared Cook.  It’s all about competition, and a guy like Clay Harbor could absolutely use some.

Alright folks, that’s it for now.  Up next; Running Back/Fullback.

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