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NFC East preview: Will DeSean Jackson help Eagles’ deep-ball game once again?

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson looks on from the sideline.
DeSean Jackson is back on the Philadelphia Eagles after spending three seasons with the Washington Redskins and the past two years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
(Getty Images)

Receiver DeSean Jackson is back with the Philadelphia Eagles, and the NFL world is back on its axis.

At least that’s how his brother sees it.

“Going to the Redskins, then going to Tampa Bay, growing up and maturing and now having another opportunity to go back to the team that drafted him, all of that helped revitalize his spirit,” said Byron Jackson, who lives in Los Angeles and helps train his younger brother in the offseason. “I think DeSean’s on a mission this year.”

The Buccaneers traded the blistering-fast receiver in March back to Philadelphia, where the former Long Beach Poly standout played from 2008 through ’13. He made three Pro Bowls in six seasons with the Eagles before then-coach Chip Kelly showed him the door.

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So Jackson returns, theoretically giving the Eagles the kind of deep threat they haven’t had since he left.

Previewing the 2019 NFL season as the league celebrates its 100th year and the Rams and Chargers look to contend for the Super Bowl LIV title.

Of course, at 32 and playing a position in which it’s almost impossible to age gracefully, there are questions about whether he still has — and can maintain — the speed that so long has defined him.

“I’d like to say so,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Bob Ford this summer. “I don’t think I’ve lost a step. I’ve still got the speed that has kept me in this league, but they haven’t timed me in a long time. I’m good with where I’m at right now.”

Jackson, entering his 12th season, has 589 catches for 10,261 yards with 53 touchdowns. He joins a pass-catching group that includes tight end Zach Ertz and receivers Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor, a better-than-capable cluster of targets for quarterback Carson Wentz.

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Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson laughs while sitting on the bench.
Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson laughs while sitting on the bench during a preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens on Aug. 22.
(Getty Images)

“DeSean is a complete player,” said Mike Groh, Philadelphia’s offensive coordinator. “He can do anything he wants. As a coach, it’s really exciting because you can just say, ‘Hey, can you run this route, or can you do it like this?’ and he can do it.

“So from a coaching standpoint, that makes it really easy. We’re just trying to move him around and have him do a whole bunch of things because he is such a weapon.”

Other new additions should help Philadelphia’s offense too, among them running backs Jordan Howard and rookie Miles Sanders, who are looking to bolster a 28th-ranked ground game.

Meanwhile, Washington used a first-round pick on Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins, the potential long-term answer for a franchise that lost Alex Smith to a gruesome leg injury last season.

The New York Giants also spent a first-round selection on a quarterback, Duke’s Daniel Jones, the heir apparent — and air apparent — to Eli Manning.

Tight end Jason Witten left the “Monday Night Football” booth and came out of retirement to return to the Dallas Cowboys, who have a new receiving weapon in former Green Bay star Randall Cobb.

But all the buzz in Philadelphia is the comeback pattern run by Jackson.

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“Philadelphia was the place that our dad last saw him play,” Byron Jackson said.

“DeSean was successful, and our father got to actually see that with his eyes.”

Bill Jackson, the patriarch of the family and a bus driver in Los Angeles who lived to see his sons play football, died in 2009.

“I just picture DeSean back in that Eagles jersey,” Byron said. “My dad got to see him play in that jersey. … I remember him being a little kid and flying like an eagle, my dad behind him. It’s like, ‘Man, he’s back with the Eagles.’

“It’s almost like heavenly sent.”

Dallas Cowboys

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Dak Prescott: Without Ezekiel Elliott, Precott is a vastly different player. He has only five games with at least 300 yards passing, so he’s not going to rip up the record books. He needs his running back.

DE DeMarcus Lawrence: Coming off shoulder surgery, he is the highest-paid player in franchise history. He’s on the cusp of becoming a dominant player in the NFL. He leads a Cowboys defense that has been good but not great.

WR Amari Cooper: Although he was outstanding last year, including huge games against division rivals Washington and Philadelphia, Cooper still needs to prove he can be consistent. He’s like a home run hitter who strikes out a lot.

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THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

LB Leighton Vander Esch: The Cowboys had high expectations for him, and Vander Esch exceeded them. The Brian Urlacher comparisons are legit. Bigger and stronger this year, this Sean Lee replacement figures to be a household name.

LB Jaylon Smith: An outstanding blitzing linebacker, Smith is poised to go from a feel-good story to simply a great defensive player. In terms of athleticism, he tops the charts. He had 121 tackles and four sacks last season.

RB Tony Pollard: For a team that wants to diversify its offense, Pollard is a godsend. The fourth-round pick from Memphis has some Alvin Kamara-like qualities. He can catch the ball out of the backfield and return kickoffs.

BURNING QUESTION

It has been almost 24 years since the Cowboys have gotten beyond the second round of the playoffs, but can this be the team that does that? The throwback offense needs to step up and catch up with the rest of the good teams in the NFL.

2018: 10-6, first in division

Last year in playoffs: 2018

New York Giants

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Eli Manning: This is Manning’s last stand after fans and the media tried to run him out of town last year. He has an improved offensive line and some playmakers — even without Odell Beckham Jr. By many accounts, Manning’s arm is stronger than ever.

RB Saquon Barkley: Last season’s offensive rookie of the year, Barkley unquestionably is the team’s most talented player on that side of the ball. With Beckham gone, Barkley figures to see a lot more eight-man boxes, which will make running tougher.

S Jabrill Peppers: Fast and dynamic, Peppers figures to be the leader of an otherwise weak secondary. He replaces the playmaking Landon Collins, who got too expensive. Peppers came from Cleveland as part of the Beckham trade.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

OT Nate Solder: A onetime stalwart in New England, Solder was signed to a massive contract but was a disappointing turnstile last season. He needs to step up at left tackle and protect Manning the way he did Tom Brady.

WR Sterling Shepard: A classic No.2 receiver, Shepard moves into the top spot with Beckham gone. He’s more than a slot receiver, but Shepard has never caught more than 66 balls in a season. Expect an uptick.

CB DeAndre Baker: Penciled in as the starter opposite Janoris Jenkins, this first-round pick from Georgia will be under pressure right away. It doesn’t help that he has been dealing with a sprained knee at training camp.

BURNING QUESTION

How long will it take for first-round quarterback Daniel Jones to take over for Manning? Jones, initially derided by fans who thought he was selected too early, has looked great in training camp.

2018: 5-11, fourth in division

Last year in playoffs: 2016

Philadelphia Eagles

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Carson Wentz: Book the playoffs if Wentz can stay healthy, but he has been out in December and January in each of the last two seasons. Trusty backup Nick Foles is gone and untested Nate Sudfeld has a broken wrist.

DE Derek Barnett: Jim Schwartz’s defense is predicated on getting pressure with four rushers, and two of last season’s standouts are gone in Michael Bennett and Chris Long. That ramps up the responsibilities of Barnett, who has a rebuilt shoulder.

WR DeSean Jackson: The Eagles are hoping Jackson brings a down-the-field, explosive element they haven’t had since he left, although it’s difficult to age gracefully at that position and Jackson is in the career twilight at 32.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

RB Miles Sanders: It’s early, but with his penchant for jump cuts, Sanders has drawn comparisons to LeSean McCoy. The second-round pick from Penn State should be an exciting complement to workhorse Jordan Howard.

TE Dallas Goedert: Even though the Eagles already have a star in Zach Ertz, they are planning to deploy a lot of two-tight-end sets, which, with Jackson going deep, will create opportunities underneath for the second-year Goedert.

CB Rasul Douglas: The Eagles used 10 cornerbacks last season and resorted to pulling guys off the street. Douglas was a bright spot, improving after a bumpy rookie season. Now, it’s time for Douglas and/or Sidney Jones to excel.

BURNING QUESTION

Can Wentz stay healthy? The season hinges on him. Two years ago, it was his knee. Last year, his back. This season, with Foles in Jacksonville, the Eagles are working without a safety net.

2018: 9-7, second in division

Last year in playoffs: 2018

Washington Redskins

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Case Keenum: America’s Fill-In has made stops with Houston, the Rams, Minnesota, Denver and now Washington, where he aims to pick up the slack for the injured Alex Smith. Keenum was named the Week 1 starter vs. Philadelphia.

TE Jordan Reed: If Reed is healthy — and that’s a big if — Washington has a different offense. He has had toe issues each of the last two seasons and saw his productivity drop with the departure of Kirk Cousins. Still, he’s the key to the passing game.

RB Derrius Guice: The team liked what it saw in Guice last year, but the former Louisiana State standout was around for only a blink. He ran just six times in the first exhibition game before he was felled by a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

S Montae Nicholson: There has been lots of attention paid to newly acquired safety Landon Collins, but Nicholson figures to be the quarterback of that secondary. He has good size and great sideline-to-sideline range.

OT Donald Penn: The holdout of seven-time Pro Bowl tackle Trent Williams has rocked the Redskins, and it’s looking as if Penn will have to step up at left tackle. That whole side of the offensive line is a liability.

BURNING QUESTION

Jay Gruden is the longest-tenured coach in owner Daniel Snyder’s history with the team, but how long will Gruden be around? Some of that hinges on when first-round quarterback Dwayne Haskins will be ready to step in and contribute.

2018: 7-9, third in division

Last year in playoffs: 2015


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