When the Patriots had the good fortune of selecting wide receiver Chad Jackson in the second-round of April's draft, one of the draft's top-rated pass catchers and a guy the team contemplated picking with its first-round pick that eventually went to running back Laurence Maroney, it was obvious that the Florida standout would have the chance to earn a key role with the three-time defending AFC East champs. With Tom Brady's previous No. 2 target, David Givens, having moved on to Tennessee through free agency, most expected that Jackson and free agent addition Reche Caldwell would compete this summer for Givens' open slot.
But when the Patriots got together for the team's mandatory veteran mini-camp earlier this month without No. 1 wideout Deion Branch in attendance, it became obvious that Jackson's role could be even more important than previous expected come fall.
Blessed with the size, speed and breathtakingly soft hands that are characteristic of elite No. 1 NFL receivers, Jackson has already impressed his coaches and teammates in his short time in New England. And with Branch's status up in the air as negotiations have apparently stalled on a contract extension as the former Super Bowl MVP heads into the final year of his rookie deal, Jackson may quite literally have to hit the ground running in his pro career. Although it often takes many rookie wideouts a while to adjust to the complexities and increased physical strain of life in the pros, it looks like time is not a luxury the Patriots can really afford to give Jackson as he embarks on his rookie campaign.
The 6-2, 202-pound Jackson, selected 36th overall and yet to even sign his rookie contract, is well aware of the urgency.
"Right now as a rookie they are looking for me to come in and make big plays and step up, be a team leader and be one of those go-to guys," Jackson said summing up the expectations that face him this fall.
He certainly produced to those levels in college. In three seasons with the Gators, Jackson caught 120 passes for 1,586 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also served different roles in Gainesville. As a sophomore he was a big-play specialist averaging a school-record 22.3 yards a catch on 29 receptions. Last year, playing inside receiver position in Urban Meyer's spread offense Jackson was more of a possession-type player, catching 88 balls for 900 yards and nine scores.
|New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) has a word with rookie wide receiver Chad jackson (17) during a break in running plays at the second day of Patriots football mini camp in Foxbrough, Mass., Wednesday morning June 14, 2006. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)|
Regardless of what his role ends up being for the Patriots Brady's initial reaction to Jackson, a guy he knows he may have to count on this fall, has been positive.
"I like him a lot," Brady said after his first mini-camp practice working with Jackson. "He's a smart kid. He's really willing to learn. He's excited. He had a great, productive college career. He's coming in and he's really working hard, which I think everybody is impressed by-his work ethic. I wish I had gotten him the ball a little bit more today. I was walking off the field realizing I've got to start getting him the football. I'm excited about him, and I know he's excited about being here."
Having Brady excited about you as a receiver is a good thing at this point. Now the only question is whether Jackson can live up to the high rookie season expectations that will likely be thrown in his direction as often as the ball this fall.