By Annie Ross
Of all the questions in the mind of Eagles Nation as the Birds prepare to open the season tomorrow against Jacksonville, none has greater importance than, “How will we fare without DeSean Jackson?”
Jackson, a three-time Pro Bowl receiver, was cut last March by the Eagles after the best season of his career. It was a bold move by coach Chip Kelly, who made it clear he’s willing to part with players who don’t do things his way.
”I don’t think we’re going to miss a beat,” receiver Jeremy Maclin said. ”No disrespect to DeSean, who is a tremendous player, but I’m very confident in our group and I think we’ll be something special.”
Maclin and Riley Cooper (photo above) are the starters outside. Cooper is coming off a breakout season in which he set career highs in receptions (47), receiving yards (835) and touchdowns (eight).
Kelly disputes the notion that Cooper produced those numbers because defenses were so concerned with Jackson on the other side.
”DeSean was getting man (coverage) on his side,” Kelly said. ”I think most people played us in single-high coverage and they played man across the board on anybody and no one was getting any help. No one is going to play us in two-deep because if you play us in two-deep, we can run the heck out of the ball. We had everybody as close to the line of scrimmage as possible and nobody was helping anybody. They were trying to stop the run game.”
Maclin led the team with 69 catches for 857 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012 before tearing his right ACL in training camp last year. He averaged 64 catches, 863 yards and six TDs in his first four seasons.
Rookie Jordan Matthews takes Jason Avant’s spot in the slot. He is the SEC’s all-time leader in career receptions (262) and yards receiving (3,759). Matthews had 112 receptions for 1,477 yards and seven TDs as a senior.
”You don’t want to get too excited, overhyped because you’re going to start making mistakes that you shouldn’t make,” Matthews said. ”I’m just focused on doing my job and making sure I’m in the flow of the game.”
Coaches and teammates praised Matthews for his work ethic throughout the offseason workouts. Fans who saw him practice in camp rave about his skills.
”Jordan did everything we’re looking for in a receiver,” offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. ”He’s good at catching the football. He’s big and physical. He can bump and run. When he catches it, he can run with it. He blocks. He’s smart. All the things we’re looking for.”
Fellow rookie Josh Huff, a third-round pick from Oregon, should contribute once he recovers from a shoulder injury. Tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz and versatile running back Darren Sproles also will help replace Jackson’s 82 catches, 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns.
”I think people forget about Jeremy Maclin, a guy that was very established with DeSean Jackson,” All-Pro running back LeSean McCoy said. ”He’s a guy that can spread the field and do all of the intermediate things in the middle. Having him back, he’s healthy and looking good. We have so many different weapons, and we added Sproles, a guy who can do both from the passing game to the running game. You’ll see a lot of him on Sunday.”
Kelly kept things simple with his first-team offense in the preseason. He didn’t show much of his up-tempo offense. Teams saw plenty from the Eagles last year, but Kelly may have more up his sleeve.
”There’s a lot more,” Maclin said. ”We didn’t throw the ball down the field at all during the preseason. So there’s a lot more. You don’t show your whole hand during the preseason. The offense is going to keep evolving. We keep ad