I don't think the question ever really was whether the Philadelphia Eagles would use their franchise player designation on wide receiver DeSean Jackson. For me, at least, the question has long been what would happen with Jackson after they did.
Will the application of the franchise tag lead to productive negotiations and a long-term contract? That is the intent of the franchise-player rule, after all, and the players union is said to be watching closely to make sure it is not abused. Jackson wants a long-term deal from the Eagles and has for a few years now. But somehow this no longer seems like an attainable result.
Will Jackson simply play for the Eagles on what amounts to a one-year deal for about $9.5 million? Possible, since that's about a $9 million raise over his 2011 salary and part of his issue a year ago was his belief that he was underpaid relative to the rest of the league's top wideouts. But I don't think that would solve all of the issues -- from Jackson's end or from the team's.
No, I think the most likely result here is that the Eagles trade Jackson after franchising him. And I think that would be the best move for both the team and the player.
The best way for Jackson to get the best possible contract is to hit the open market. But the Eagles aren't going to let him do that, because they don't want to let him go without getting anything in return. Given that fact, the best remaining way for Jackson to get the best possible contract is to get it from another team. The Eagles might be willing to sign him long-term, but not at the numbers he's surely seeking. They've seen the reasons not to, and they've seen them up close. Andy Reid can talk all he wants about how proud he is of Jackson and his belief that Jackson was "all-in" on the Eagles' 2011 season, but there's too much evidence to the contrary. Jackson himself has admitted, publicly, that concerns about his contract distracted him and kept him from being as reliable and productive as he needed to be. He's apologized to teammates for behavior that was detrimental to the team and rooted in his dissatisfaction over this situation. Even if you give the player what he wants and solve the contract issue, you're still left with a guy who obviously lets off-field issues affect on-field performance. And if you're the Eagles, you've seen, up-close, the ways in which that manifests itself. That has to keep you from making a top-of-the-market offer.
Jackson is a sublime talent. He just turned 25 years old and has, over the course of his first four years in the NFL, flashed the speed and shiftiness to score from anywhere on the field once the ball is in his hands. There are teams out there who haven't experienced the headaches and are surely drooling over the ability -- who believe, maybe correctly, that he'd be reborn in their system with a new deal and a fresh start. But if you're the Eagles, you have to be wondering why you need to pay No. 1 receiver money for a guy who just finished 47th in the league in catches and 23rd in receiving yards and really didn't help on punt returns the way he used to either.
Franchising Jackson is unquestionably the right move for the Eagles. But keeping him around without giving him the contract he wants would be a mistake. Someone will offer something of great value in exchange -- be it picks, players or some combination thereof. Some team will make an offer worth taking, and when that happens the Eagles should take it and rid themselves of the potential headache that could come from Jackson playing without a new deal. Save the $9.5 million to use on a linebacker or two, or to help you pay the first-round wide receiver you take to replace Jackson, or toward a new deal for LeSean McCoy. A fully healthy Jeremy Maclin, coming off a fully healthy offseason, is capable of being a No. 1 NFL wide receiver. It's one of the reasons the Eagles drafted Maclin in the first round three years ago -- in case they weren't going to have Jackson long-term and needed someone to replace him. Finding a No. 2 from among the internal candidates or a strong free-agent receiver class won't be difficult. Keeping Jackson happy for another year without extending him might be.
But in the end, a trade would be the best thing for Jackson, too. The Eagles aren't going to give him the deal he wants. He and Reid and everybody else can say all they want to say about the past being the past, but he'd be better off going to a place where there aren't any scars, and where they'd be thrilled to have him instead of worried about what could go wrong. That's the best way for Jackson to make the money he wants to make, and it's probably the best way for him to re-boot a career that's one more disappointing Philadelphia season away from serious danger. It's always tough when the only team you've known decides to move on. But for the Eagles and for Jackson, a trade is the way to go.