Eagles' gamble on Jackson pays off

Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson had 62 catches as a rookie after dropping to the second round in the 2008 draft. "The best thing I can do is to set myself up for the long run in this league," he says.
Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson had 62 catches as a rookie after dropping to the second round in the 2008 draft. "The best thing I can do is to set myself up for the long run in this league," he says.
Posted: September 08, 2009

Of course, the Eagles now say, they had no reservations about drafting DeSean Jackson in 2008.

If that was, indeed, true, they were the only ones.

On draft day, the fastest, most elusive wide receiver available was passed over 32 times in the first round. The Eagles know why Jackson dropped into their laps (49th pick) in the following round.

"We had him in the first round," Eagles general manager Tom Heckert said. "We thought he might fall just a little bit because of his size, number one. And there was - I wouldn't say 'baggage' - but there were some concerns about him. Not being a bad guy, just that his practice habits weren't always great."

Jackson had 62 catches during his rookie season, which provides some answers to the questions about his habits. Then, during preseason practices this year, the 5-foot-10, 175-pound wideout was easily the Eagles' most dynamic performer and one of their most professional.

Jackson's sophomore season is loaded with incentives. He can prove his rookie season was no fluke. The 22-year-old also wants that big contract he never got - the one the Eagles just gave to their 2009 first-round draft pick, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin.

"Money motivates everybody," Jackson said. "I'm trying to set myself up for my second contract. I'm a starter that wasn't drafted in the first round - but that's cool. The best thing I can do is to set myself up for the long run in this league."

For the Eagles, a Jackson leap into an elite level demonstrates that they can scout, draft, and develop a prospect into a No. 1 receiver after a few failed attempts. Coach Andy Reid did his homework on Jackson and came away convinced that the California product would blossom into a star and not wither into a prima donna.

"I didn't have that problem," Reid said. "I talked to his head coach [at Cal] and I've known [Jeff] Tedford for a long time. He has a pretty good idea what he's doing there and he didn't say he wasn't good with all that."

Tedford has said in the past that Jackson, because of his natural abilities, didn't have to work as hard as others. Reid was raised in Los Angeles, not far from Long Beach Polytechnic, where Jackson went to high school. The coach called around and made inquiries. Still, he had to hear it straight from the source.

"When we interviewed him at the combine and we brought him in here we drilled him pretty hard, saying, 'What's the deal?' " Heckert said. "It's one of those 'He said, he said,' deals where you get different stories."

There were complaints that his family was too involved. There were claims that Jackson pouted during a disappointing junior season at Cal.

"People's perception of me back then is what it is," Jackson said. "Everybody knows what it is now. That's all that matters."

If there was anything, there was what has become commonplace on college and high school campuses - an athlete in the spotlight long before he's able to handle it.

"Here's his career - an all-American football player as a freshman and a sophomore at Cal," Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. "He was one of the highest-thought-of recruits that Cal has ever gotten in the past two decades. So you can imagine the climate there."

Mornhinweg said Reid set some ground rules. But Jackson has done nothing to test those regulations except for one on-the-field incident, when he flipped the football before a would-be touchdown against the Cowboys last September.

Quantifying desire is difficult, but the Eagles knew what they had when Jackson measured out to just 5-10 and 168 pounds at the predraft combine. Reid said Jackson compared favorably with two other similarly sized wideouts - Steve Smith and Roscoe Parrish.

"Other people - the media - had reservations," Reid said. "They thought we took him as a return specialist. I remember my first news conference - I mentioned that I thought he was the best route-runner in the draft. Everybody kind of laughed."

Jackson ran faster than any player in the draft - 4.35 in the 40-yard dash - including the six receivers taken ahead of him. But the Eagles also learned that Jackson was a quick study despite a relatively low score [15] on the Wonderlic test given to most draft-eligible players.

"I knew he was smart," Reid said. "I knew that the offense he came from was a pro-style offense. He worked out with Jerry Rice, so I had a chance to talk to Jerry about him. Actually, Marty and Jerry are very close, so Jerry was giving him updates the whole time."

The Hall of Fame receiver called Jackson the fastest receiver he had ever seen. Their workouts covered all facets of pro football, but Rice helped the most in teaching Jackson how to elude pressing cornerbacks.

"Getting off press coverage, that's a huge thing," Heckert said. "But you very rarely see it in college. . . . The biggest thing is his quickness, how you can get off the line. You can't get held up in your route or it's going to throw everything [off] - especially in this offense, where it's all about timing."

In each of his first two games, Jackson went over 100 yards receiving. At that point, he was already running the most precise routes on the team. By the end of the season he had set franchise marks for rookie receivers in receptions (62) and yards (912).

Based on this preseason, there probably isn't anyone affiliated with the NFL or any fantasy league that doesn't believe Jackson, barring injury, will improve upon those numbers.

He sure does.

"That's the plan - to double 62," Jackson said. "If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. But I'm definitely shooting for it. I know there's going to be competition, but that's the challenge. Me and Donovan [McNabb] are on the same page. He knows the type of receiver that I am and how I've developed in my second year."

Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com.