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Pushing the Pocket: DeSean Jackson's Impending Free Agency

Fahey looks at the value of impending free agent DeSean Jackson

Less than 60 seconds had passed before DeAndre Hopkins roasted Vontae Davis. Davis had lined up on the left side of the defense in press coverage with safety help over the top. Hopkins was aggressive releasing off the line before pushing his way past the inside shoulder of the cornerback. Once Hopkins got level with Davis, he made a sudden stop before re-accelerating to sell his double move. Davis bought the double move badly and so did the safety trying to run over the top of the route.

Hopkins couldn't have run a better route. He was in behind the defense and pulling away from the defenders chasing him. Osweiler airmailed the pass over his head.

Hopkins has only caught 60 passes for 701 yards and four touchdowns this season. He caught 111 passes for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2015 despite dealing with consistently poor service from Brian Hoyer. Hoyer consistently cost Hopkins fantasy points but he at least gave the receiver opportunities to adjust to the ball at the catch point. Brock Osweiler has completely neutered Hopkins by taking those opportunities away. Hopkins gives his quarterback a huge margin for error but he still needs his quarterback to fit the ball into that margin for error.

Any receiver in the NFL is only as valauble as his opportunities allow him to be. Hopkins is the most overt example of this but he's not the only receiver suffering. DeSean Jackson has caught 42 passes for 746 yards and four touchdowns so far this season. Over the past four games, Jackson has caught 12 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns. Jackson's output over the course of the season, and for much of his career, has been limited by the offenses he has played in.

Jackson is often painted as just a deep threat. He is an outrageously good deep threat but he's also a well-rounded receiver. Jackson doesn't thrive in the Washington offense because he spends most of his time clearing out space as a deep option that is regularly ignored. In a more aggressive offense with a quarterback more capable of throwing accurately downfield, Jackson's numbers would multiply. Not only that, Jackson is such a good deep threat that he makes his quarterback's numbers on deep throws better by consistently getting so wide open and consistently making difficult adjustments at the catch point.

These are important notes about Jackson entering the offseason because he is likely to hit the free agent market.

On Sunday, Jackson caught an 80-yard touchdown in the third quarter. It wasn't just that he got open that deep downfield, Jackson was wide open and after getting wide open he made an outstanding adjustment to a poorly thrown ball over his outside shoulder. This pass should be thrown towards the middle of the field. It should lead the wide receiver to the space and towards the endzone. It doesn't so Jackson has to first recognize this by locating the footblal early, then maintain his balance and body control as he tracks the ball coming over his head.

The physical act of coralling the ball into his hands is the easiest part of this play but even that isn't easy in this instance.

Jackson is a receiver who is regularly lumped into a category with other deep threats. He and Mike Wallace are viewed as similar simply because Wallace is exceptionally fast and so is Jackson. Jackson has never been that type of receiver though. Where Wallace is a sprinter playing receiver, Jackson is a legitimate receiver who just happens to have the fast forward button permanently pressed down. This 80-yard reception highlights it with his incredible ball skills at the end of the play but this play also highlights his intelligence as a route runner.

 From this angle, we can see how Jackson releases towards the cornerback before pushing upfield. The cornerback actually gets a good read on the receiver and puts himself in position to run with Jackson. He tries to get on top of the receiver so he can thwart his attempts to create an equal race. Jackson doesn't let the cornerback get on top of him, he subtly nudges the defender to knock him off his body before accelerating away from him into space. This subtletly and understanding of nuance isn't something you see from Wallace or the other deep threats in the league. They run looser routes and don't understand how to use their upper body the way Jackson does.

These are all important details when you consider the quality of this throw. This shouldn't have been a touchdown. The ball was way off of where it should be. If Jackson hadn't got the cornerback off of his body, the cornerback would have been in position to break up the pass or even intercept the ball. Had Jackson not adjusted to it after getting the cornerback off of his body, he wouldn't have been able to catch it never mind stay upright and run the ball into the endzone.

If the Eagles are going to pursue Jackson like is rumoured, he gave them every reason to pay him big money in this game.

This is another play where Jackson covers an inaccurate throw from his quarterback. Jackson is wide open but the ball comes too wide. He has to turn and adjust to find the ball before keeping both feet inbounds while stretching over the sideline. Jackson manages to complete the play while turning and falling backwards, tapping both toes safely inbounds. This isn't a play that Mike Wallace, Torrey Smith or any other receiver of that kind would be expected to make. It is one you'd expect Jackson to make.

Jackson was also the intended target for Kirk Cousins' interception. Cousins isn't a strong-armed quarterback. He is incapable of consistently pushing the ball from the far hash to the opposite sideline regardless of the receiver's depth. You can see the effort he has to put into the above throw, a near hash throw to the near sideline.

If Jackson was paired with a quarterback such as Cam Newton in the offseason the far sideline and deep routes would open up for him. Jackson would immediately be Newton's number one receiver because he is more versatile and more reliable than Ted Ginn. The Panthers are the ideal landing spot but most teams would set Jackson up better than Washington does for his individual production. That doesn't mean Jackson is guaranteed to leave Washington because his value in pulling coverage away from other receivers is huge for how Jay Gruden's offense functions.

Even though he just turned 30, Jackson has shown no signs of slowing down. He should be a prioritized free agent in the offseason and, if he leaves Washington for a better situation, should become a more highly-coveted fantasy option.