EAGLES TRAINING CAMP — TWO WEEKS AND COUNTING

By Michael McCarthy

The clock is ticking on the start of Eagles training camp and the overarching theme in Eagles Nation is still the March decision to cut DeSean Jackson, who later signed with devision rival Washington.

Jackson was by far the Eagles’ most prolific pass-catcher in 2013, as he led the club in receptions (82) and receiving touchdowns (9), and had nearly as many receiving yards (1,332) as LeSean McCoy and Riley Cooper combined (1,374).

There have been multiple reasons suggested for why head coach Chip Kelly (above photo with Jackson) and the Philly front office would let a player of Jackson’s caliber go, but it’s possible the Eagles sent Jackson packing because they have a plan in place that will make them not miss him one bit.

That plan revolves around the following four elements.

Jackson’s main role in the Eagles’ offense was to be the vertical threat. According to ESPN Stats & Information, his 905 receiving yards on vertical passes (defined as aerials thrown 11 or more yards downfield) accounted for 38 percent of Philadelphia’s production in that area last season.

Maclin missed the entire 2013 campaign due to an ACL tear in his right knee, but in 2012 he outpaced Jackson in terms of vertical receptions (47 for Maclin, 42 for Jackson), vertical yards (540 for Maclin, 449 for Jackson) and vertical touchdowns (five for Maclin, two for Jackson). To be fair, Maclin played in 15 games that year and Jackson played in only 11, but even if those numbers are tabulated on a per-game basis, Maclin was nearly as productive as Jackson. Given that his recovery is going quite well (Maclin recently said he feels faster in some ways), Maclin should be on pace to mimic Jackson’s role as a downfield target in 2014.

It might not seem possible for the Eagles to lean on the rush game much more than they did last year, as they finished with 500 carries, a mark that ranked fourth in the league.

Having noted this, Kelly’s offense likely didn’t lean on the ground game as much as he wanted. His play-calling philosophy is very unique in that he operates a fast-paced offense that is centered on the ground game. This approach has the effect of forcing the opposing team to adopt an equally brisk pace. Since most teams don’t have a fast-paced run section in their playbook, they will instead go with a quicker passing game.

Kelly knows that when this happens, his team has the advantage of operating a lower-risk offensive system (passes being inherently more dangerous than rushes) and therefore is more likely to win the turnover battle. It is a major portion of why, over the course of his six years at Oregon (two as offensive coordinator, four as head coach), Kelly’s Ducks had a plus-61 turnover margin, a total that was tied for third-best in college football in that time frame.

This approach worked equally well in Kelly’s first year with the Eagles. They had a plus-13 turnover margin in the 12 games they ran the ball 25 or more times, a mark that compares extremely well with their minus-one turnover margin in the other games. It is part of why Kelly will likely be looking to move even more of the offense to the ground game.

A larger emphasis on the ground game could mean more carries for McCoy. This would be an issue given that McCoy had a combined total of 375 rushes and targets last season, a mark that placed second highest among running backs.

A solution to this quandary was found via the signing of Sproles. He finished last season ranked fourth among running backs in receptions (71) and receiving yards (604), and tied for fourth in targets (86). His addition is likely part of a plan to reduce the receiving workload on McCoy in preparation for giving him a larger number of carries.

Sproles will also help the Eagles stretch the field more on their dink-and-dunk throws to running backs. Last year, Philly had only eight targets to running backs that traveled 5 or more yards downfield, a total that tied for 24th in the league. Sproles had 22 targets of this variety last season, so his presence should also cause defenses to be more cautious in their short-pass coverage and thus open up more space for the Eagles’ running game.

Kelly isn’t known for utilizing tight ends in his offense, but one recurring theme in his coaching career is a proven ability to tailor his scheme around his players’ abilities.

In the case of Brent Celek and Zach Ertz, this trait should cause Kelly to move some of Jackson’s vertical target volume in their direction.

Last season, Celek and Ertz finished third and 12th, respectively, in vertical yards per reception among tight ends (25.6 for Celek, 21.6 for Ertz). They did so on a combined 22 vertical receptions, so adding another 10 to 15 throws of this caliber should be a reasonable goal.

The Eagles’ brain trust is quite savvy. It would not have let the team’s most prolific receiver go without having some sort of replacement plan in order, and in this case the Eagles have four elements in place to offset the loss.

Barring a string of injuries, this all but guarantees Philadelphia’s offense will not miss DeSean Jackson in 2014.

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