Maclin vs. Jackson: Who’s More Valuable?

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After the high-flying success of the 2010 Eagles passing attack, this past season represented a large drop off in passing production. Michael Vick regressed from his MVP-caliber season, and his young wide receivers did as well.

Even with fewer sacks, Vick’s net yards per attempt (which includes sacks) went down in 2011, as did his touchdown percentage. Meanwhile, his interception rate doubled. DeSean Jackson caught more passes, but had fewer yards and touchdowns. Jeremy Maclin suffered a similar decline across his numbers.

However, it was an especially trying season for Jackson, who played with the weight of failed contract negotiations on his shoulders. Unfortunately, instead of keeping business and football separate, Jackson admitted after the final game that he let the contract issues distract him.

So, as we enter the offseason, the question remains as to what to do about Jackson and his pending free-agent status. Do you let him test the market, or do you franchise tag him? Do you try to work out an extension, or let him walk away?

These outcomes are all on the table. The correct answer lies in how you view Jackson as a player and how he fits into the Eagles offense. Is he a legitimate No. 1 receiver, or do his personal foibles and inconsistent hands make him expendable?

Relatedly, if Maclin is the real number one wideout, maybe you build the offense around him instead. After all, he has more receptions and touchdowns than Jackson the last two seasons, and (for what it’s worth) wide receiver DVOA stats tend to rank Maclin above Jackson.

I thought a good place to start with all of this was with the final piece: an analysis of Maclin and Jackson against each other and, notably, without each other.

Here are the stats for the two receivers in games they both played, over the last three seasons (from Pro Football Focus): 

Maclin Jackson With

Looking at this data, you can see that pass distribution has been almost equal; Maclin has a slight edge in targets. However, Maclin’s catch rate is much higher, resulting in more than an extra reception per game. Jackson catches more of the longer passes, however, so the yardage works out to be almost equal.

Both have been good receivers, but in different ways. Jackson is more explosive, Maclin is more reliable. Two reasonable people might disagree over which is more useful, and I’m not sure it’s worth debating at this time.

But those stats are only when the two play in the same game. If we want to know who is more valuable or, more to the point, what the prospects are without Jackson, we need to look at games they played without their counterpart (highlighted green for improved performance and red for decline against the baseline): 

Maclin Jackson Without

Let me just start by stating plainly the small sample size here. In the last three years Jackson has played only 6 games without Maclin, and Maclin only 3 without Jackson. That said, the numbers might still provide insight.

In both cases their pass targets went up by one — but that’s really the only similarity. In almost every other statistic, Jackson’s numbers actually improved without Maclin in the lineup. He had a higher catch rate and higher yards after the catch. Slightly fewer touchdowns, but that’s so hard to project over a limited number of games.

Meanwhile, things haven’t gone well in Maclin’s few tries without Jackson. While his targets went up, his catch rate dropped dramatically to less than 50 percent. He had fewer yards per catch, fewer yards after the catch, and no touchdowns. All in all, surprisingly poor results.

Once again, small sample size, but this is the only evidence we’re going to have before the Eagles make a long-term decision on their mercurial young star. And the evidence certainly suggests that Jackson’s not only a fine receiver himself, but his deep threat makes his running mate look better as well.

Take away Maclin, and Jackson benefits from the increased attention. Take away Jackson, and Maclin suffers despite it.

Some fans might be willing to move on without Jackson, should that come to pass. But this data reads like a warning. In a full season without DeSean, Maclin might look a lot more like Reggie Brown than Mike Quick.

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