Tommy had a post yesterday on DeSean’s future; I want to follow up with some ideas that I set out in the comments and on Twitter, but want to expand on a bit.
The view on what to do about DeSean depends largely on what your personal view of his future is. I could see that falling into several buckets of reasonable analysis, which I will discuss after the jump.
- He’s Good, Not Great. Some argue that DeSean is vastly overrated. If you look at certain metrics, like DVOA, for instance, he is unimpressive. As a result, you can replace his production pretty easily. Yes, he has made some impressive plays, but he also makes a lot of unimpressive ones, where he drops or short-arms the ball, resulting in a low overall catch rate. A related point is that he’s a great “long field” player, but not much of a short field one. He is, to be generous, ordinary in the red zone and probably a liability, and that shows up when you look at the Eagles’ scoring in the red zone. For this population, the answer seems to be that DeSean is going to get paid a lot of money by a team that falls for the hype, and he is going to under-deliver that amount of money because he was never worth that much in the first place. The Eagles can get enough production for far less cost pretty easily. Plus, DeSean is a headcase. Once he gets paid, how does anyone know he will even keep trying? In general, the team would get more bang for their buck by investing in a different player.
- He’s A Rare Commodity. DeSean has averaged 19.0 yards per reception over the past three years. He has 23 plays of 40 or more yards during that time. Those are staggering numbers that have really only been matched by one player in the NFL during that time: Mike Wallace, another 2012 free agent (though he’s restricted) who is surely watching DeSean’s contract situation closely. DeSean has had a visible impact on the Eagles’ offense since the moment he became a starter, and the current offensive style is centered around him. Teams game plan for the deep threat that he provides which opens up the rest of the field and helps the offense move. While he isn’t strong in the red zone, his ability to score from any spot on the field means that the team gets into the red zone in the first place far more often than it would with a less dynamic WR at that spot. That ability allows them to get more production from less talented players at other positions; his presence makes his teammates look better than they are and allows the team to get value from cheaper players. Further, his own production isn’t a product of the system, his production is a product of a clearly high and not-easily replaceable level of talent. He’s only 25, and it is hard to imagine that he doesn’t have many more years of outstanding play in front of him, barring injury.
- He’s Small and Fragile. I would guess that everyone would concede the logic and real possibility of this point of view, even if you disagree with it. DeSean is small. He is not going to be able to take a pounding. Now, the truth is that he doesn’t try to take a pounding; from his rookie year on, he has stepped out of bounds or gone to the ground rather than fighting for an extra yard or two and subjecting himself to a big hit. That’s smart, given his frame, and I think even DeSean’s detractors would agree that if he’s averaging 19 yards per reception, that extra yard or two isn’t really that critical or worth risking the next 19 yard reception over. But over time, even that level of caution can’t prevent NFL hits from taking their toll. He hasn’t looked like the same player since his concussions, and even though DeSean is only 25 years old, it is hard to imagine that he can play 5 more years at a high level. Eventually that small frame will have enough NFL football. As a result, while he has high value in any given year, it is hard to imagine committing a ton of money long term to a guy who is a time bomb physically.
To be clear, I think all of these arguments are compelling and that reasonable minds can disagree on this. If you can’t fathom how anyone can believe a particular one of these arguments, please step back from the keyboard.
Now, where your own beliefs lie within these three arguments — and my own beliefs are a mix of all three — dictates how DeSean should be handled. I will explain what I think the best way to go about accomplishing each strategy is, and why this is so hard.
But first, let’s discuss the primary tool: the Franchise Tag.
It is estimated that the Franchise Tag for a WR will be around $9.5 million in 2012. But what really matters is the rules governing the tag. A few things to know:
- The franchise tag must be applied prior to free agency. What it really physically is often gets confused. A franchise tag means that the Eagles will essentially send DeSean Jackson a contract (a “tender offer”) for his signature with $9.5 million guaranteed. If Jackson chooses to sign with another team instead, the Eagles get a high level of draft pick compensation, two first round picks, from the team he signs with. Jackson’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, is allowed to talk to other teams about DeSean once free agency begins.
- However, DeSean Jackson does not have to sign this tender offer. And until he does, he is a free agent and not under contract to any team. That means not only does he not have to attend minicamp or training camp until he signs the tender, he isn’t ALLOWED to attend those because he isn’t actually on the team.
- Another consequence of not actually being on the team is that he can’t be traded until he signs a contract either. Thus, the Eagles can’t trade him without his consent until he signs that offer. This gives him leverage in a trade because no deal can be made unless the acquiring team is going to give him a contract he’s happy with. The Eagles had a deal to trade Corey Simon to Baltimore in 2005, but it didn’t go through because Simon couldn’t reach a deal with the Ravens. Additionally, teams will be willing to offer less to the Eagles in a trade as their cost of signing Jackson increases.
- The $9.5 million will be paid in 1/17th installments in each week of the regular season. He gets $0 when he signs. He only gets cash in week 1. Thus, there is no financial incentive to DeSean to sign the tender offer early, because there is no bonus up-front.
- The $9.5 million is only guaranteed once the offer is signed. If the team rescinds the offer before it is signed then DeSean Jackson has no claim on that $9.5 million. We saw this happen with Corey Simon.
- I believe that the absolute deadline to sign his deal without missing the whole year is the week prior to game 11, which would allow him to officially accrue a season of playing time. I haven’t checked the new CBA, but I don’t recall a change to that rule. He will lose 1/17th of his salary for each regular season week he misses, but that is ultimately his choice.
The upshot of all of this is that if Jackson is tagged, and no other deal is worked out, there is almost no chance we will see DeSean in training camp (let alone minicamp). Reporters will cover this breathlessly as a hold out, but in reality it is a non-event. Why would this guy risk his body in minicamp or waste his time when he doesn’t get paid until Week 1 anyway. Further, it isn’t like he needs to learn the offense, and he so far hasn’t been a player who has needed to get into shape anyway.
What will matter is if he starts missing regular season weeks. That will be punishing the team and himself at the same time … but this is a guy with a history of doing just that. Oh, and by the way, once his year under the tag is up, he’s an unrestricted free agent again. The team can keep him for year two with the tag, but then it wouldn’t be able use the tag to keep Shady McCoy or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (if he has one of his Pro Bowl quality years). And Shady’s agent is … Drew Rosenhaus. Yay.
Now, how to deal with DeSean, based on your beliefs.
He’s Good, Not Great. The path here is pretty clearly to let DeSean go. Now, the Eagles don’t currently have a guy who I think the Eagles should feel comfortable saying, “Ok, that guy is going to be out starting Z WR.” But the strategy here is to go sign that guy who can be a starting Z, at least in the short term. You could draft a guy as well, but the draft is a high-risk process, and it would be very risky to count on a draft pick being able to be an NFL starter from day one, and even more so to enter the draft knowing you *have* to land a guy who you can count on being that guy. In a year where the bar has been set high for the team, taking that kind of risk seems like a good way to lose your job.
Signing free agents is risky too, of course; you are almost certain to overpay for the guy you do land, which is one of the ironic aspects of this strategy because the team isn’t keeping DeSean exactly because it don’t want to overpay for him. But part of the argument is that he is more overrated than the average free agent, so there’s value there in the form of the degree to which DeSean will be overrated by the market.
The question then becomes what to do with DeSean. He will be highly valued by other teams — that’s why this segment thinks he is “overrated” — the team can get something in a trade for him. But how much? The risk here is that the team will undermine the whole strategy in a way that will seem familiar. The worst case scenario is that the team will first sign Jackson’s replacement, yet at the same time, the team will overrate what it should get for Jackson in a trade, meaning that it will keep him on the roster because other teams are offering too little, especially once it signals that it isn’t just willing to but *needs* to trade him. DeSean will spend a year destroying his value and not providing a value to the team anywhere near what he is being paid (meaning we could have used that cash on another position) and the Eagles will get little to nothing for him the following year other than a headache and maybe a comp pick if it stays out of the free agent market.
So that’s the risk of a tag and trade strategy. If the Eagles are willing to just say, “We have a replacement, Drew, go get what you can get for us in a trade and we will learn to live with it,” then this would be fine. Or maybe even not tag him at all or drop the tag once the replacement is in the house and just move on. On net, the team overpays a WR by less than we would overpay DeSean, potentially get someone who fits with the system and maybe is more functional in the red zone, and use the cap savings to improve the team elsewhere. If you think DeSean is overrated, that’s the optimal strategy, in my view.
He’s A Rare Commodity. I think what you ideally do here is tag DeSean, wait for the top WRs to sign elsewhere, and then use those deals to help you benchmark DeSean’s deal. It would be ideal if you could work with Drew in advance, let him know that’s what you plan to do, and agree that certain deals will be comparable. But since I live in reality, I know that isn’t happening, and I just have to hope that Drew sees the market move the same way I do. The risk is that there is no deal, Drew pulls a power play and I am left with two rare commodities in Shady and DeSean hitting the market in 2013, forcing me to overpay one to keep both. That’s a serious risk. But if DeSean is rare, it probably makes sense to just overpay a bit now to ensure that the team has those unique services later.
He’s Small and Fragile. It is really a combination of 1 and 2. I think you attack this one with structure and foresight. By structure, I think you make the deal as pay-as-you-go as you can. If / when he gets hurt, the money stops and you let him hit the bricks. Welcome to the NFL, punk. No signing bonus, but big base salaries every year that reflect the healthy DeSean’s impact. In terms of foresight, you not only sign him, but you draft his replacement. That seems crazy, but I think you take a “poor man’s” DeSean in the 3rd or 4th round this year, and if that guy sucks, try again next year, with the idea that if injury is inevitable and imminent for DeSean, you have to be ready to just plug in the next guy and keep moving. The team can’t do that now with its depth chart, but it makes sense to do so in the future.
So what would I do? Well, like I said, I think I have a mix of all three views. But mostly, I think DeSean is likely to be a rare talent, but a fragile one. I think if you can get a different rare talent in free agency, sure, overpaying is ok because it is so hard to get those players. But even if DeSean is merely very good and not great, and there are merely very good players but not great ones in free agency, I think I’d rather risk overpaying my own guy who I KNOW is good in my system than risk overpaying a guy I HOPE is good in my system and might, in fact, be a disaster. So I think that leads me to the strategy in 3.
That said, the Eagles might have a view more like point 1. If so, I just hope that they don’t fall into the same trap they fell into with Lito Sheppard and Asante Samuel. Both times, it was a disaster. Hopefully, the organization has learned from its mistakes.