By Jason Hirschhorn contributing reporter for TonySoftli.com
DeSean Jackson experienced a career year in 2013, his first under new Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. His marks of 82 catches, 1,332 receiving yards, and nine touchdown receptions all either tied or set new single-season highs for the 27-year-old wide receiver. Jackson’s efforts played an integral part in propelling the Eagles to NFC East division champs and landed him in his third Pro Bowl.
Just over two months later, the Eagles, unable to find a willing trade partner for Jackson’s services, released the sixth-year receiver at a cost of $6 million against this year’s salary cap.
The disconnection between these two sets of facts directly relates to the ongoing criminal prosecution of former-Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez infamously entered the national conscious this past summer when he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. While trivial in comparison, the matter forced the Patriots, never an organization known for their transparency, to answer an onslaught of questions regarding the team’s drafting practices and knowledge of Hernandez’s off-field associations. This left teams scrambling to figure out whether they too were at risk for a similar controversy.
Reports emerged over the past month that DeSean Jackson, a Southern California native, has a longstanding association with “reputed Los Angeles street gang members who have been connected to two homicides since 2010.” This followed a season in which Jackson regularly flashed gang signs on social media and even once during a regular season game in Washington. In the shadow of the Hernandez criminal prosecution, these actions understandably frightened Eagles management, beginning the process that culminated with Jackson’s release.
The Eagles spent the early portions of free agency preparing for Jackson’s departure, committing to new deals for receivers Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper. While Maclin returns on a one-year contract, Philadelphia signed Cooper for five years and $22.5 million. It’s telling that Cooper — only a year removed from his own national controversy — was deemed worth a long-term investment whereas Jackson needed to be sent away at all costs. The Eagles actions reveal how threatening Jackson’s actions and associations purport to be.
Philadelphia is hardly the only party concerned with Jackson’s associations, however. Prior to releasing the receiver, Eagles GM Howie Roseman attempted unsuccessfully to drum up trade interest in Jackson. While the 49ers, Seahawks, and Jets all surfaced as potential suitors, none proved willing to part with as much as a late-round pick for the Pro Bowler. Considering turnover-prone quarterback Matt Schaub netted the Texans a sixth-round pick less than a week ago, the league’s refusal to part with anything for Jackson constitutes nothing less than a scathing indictment of the receiver’s background.
It’s unlikely that DeSean Jackson’s playing days are over. The NFL remains, after all, a meritocracy, and the culture of “winning at all costs” will ultimately pervade. However, Jackson’s reputation takes a significant blow due to his release, one from which it is unlikely to fully recover. Receiver-needy teams will look into Jackson over the coming weeks, likely resulting in a one- or two-year contract. In the post-Hernandez landscape of the NFL, that’s the most teams can wager on a player believed to have gang connections. For the rest of his time in the NFL, Jackson will be reduced to a mercenary, a hired hand for franchises in need of short-term relief at wide receiver. Never again will teams view Jackson as the cornerstone piece he once was for Philadelphia. In their estimation, the risk is just too high.
Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Company. He also serves as the Editor-in-Chief for Hook’em Headlines. Follow him on Twitter: @JBHirschhorn