Patriots wide receiver Chad Jackson.
Gone is the fanfare that once accompanied his every move, but Chad Jackson believes his days as a Patriot are far from over.
In fact, the 6-1, 215-pound receiver is every bit as imposing a figure on the football field as he was when the Patriots traded up in the second round to grab him back in 2006. And now just might be the time for him to show that he has the skills to go with that considerable frame.
"It's an important year for me. This is what they drafted me for. So I'm going to come out here and show the coaches what I can do and show the fans what I can do and help out this team any way I can," Jackson said following the team's morning passing camp workout at Gillette Stadium.
"It feels good to be out here with the guys finally. Last year I was going through the injury and stuff and this year is more of a control year and a settle down year for me. Everything is coming along easier for me right now and all I'm doing right now is concentrating on getting the plays down and getting on the same page with the quarterbacks and the coaches."
Jackson is healthy for the first time since before training camp of his rookie season and his movements on the field showed that. Last season he never saw a single practice rep until the regular season was well underway because of a torn ACL suffered covering a kick in the 2006 AFC title game in Indy. That came a year after nagging hamstring problems limited his first season greatly as well.
That's why this is such and important year for Jackson, the second-round pick out of Florida who many envisioned as the steal of the draft. Injuries and inconsistency have led to a delay in his development while causing him to appear in just 14 games and being limited to 13 receptions (all in 2006) in two seasons in New England.
Year 3 after two mostly unproductive campaigns by definition makes 2008 vital for Jackson, but the departure of Donte' Stallworth has also added to its significance – and Jackson is well aware of that.
"How can you not? Donte's gone and there's a big spot open like everyone's saying," Jackson openly admitted when asked if he felt there was an opportunity to carve out a role. "Hopefully I can work hard and do everything I need to do to get that spot."
Jackson spent Tuesday's practice running outside opposite Randy Moss while Jabar Gaffney operated out of the slot. It should be noted that Wes Welker was not on hand for the voluntary workout and penciling in Jackson as a starter would have to be considered premature at this early juncture. But watching the smooth strides and strong hands that Jackson displayed seemed to make it a real possibility.
"I feel like I can do a lot. I can catch the ball, run after the catch … I feel like I can do a lot of things with the ball," Jackson said. "This year these coaches are going to give me the plays and the opportunities to make that happen. They haven't told me anything right now. I'm just learning my playbook and once I do that everything else will come along."
Night and day
Another young player looking to make a jump is Brandon Meriweather. The safety played in all 19 games as a rookie a year ago but really saw his time increase midway through the season to the point where he was a fixture in subpackages down the stretch and in the playoffs.
The versatile defensive back believes the year of experience will pay huge dividends for him as he tries to make the Year 2 jump that so many players have enjoyed under Bill Belichick in the past.
"There really isn't any comparison," Meriweather said. "Last year I was a rookie coming in not knowing what to expect and this year I'm a second-year player coming in knowing exactly what I have to do. I feel like it's going much better. I'm a little more comfortable in the system and I'm learning a lot from my coaches. I'm a year older now and I'm not a rookie."
Despite the strides the former Miami standout made during his rookie season, there was one area where he struggled – and his fellow defensive backs let him know about it. Despite several glaring opportunities to do so, Meriweather is still without his first career interception, a point the secondary's elder statesman,Rodney Harrison, occasionally lets him know about.
"Hot Rod is Hot Rod. I'd rather talk about me than Hot Rod," Meriweather laughed. "You all see me out here every day. Throwing with Coach Pep (Pepper Johnson) doing some reaction drills, breaking and planting, distraction drills – a lot of stuff to work on my hands.
Despite the voluntary nature of passing camp, 74 of the 81 players on the current roster were on the field taking part in the workouts. The seven missing included Ellis Hobbs, Stephen Neal, Wes Welker, Benjamin Watson, David Thomas, Jarvis Green and Mike Wright. The majority of that group likely missed the workout for injury-related reasons. Only Welker and Green are not dealing with any known injuries, although it wouldn't be the first time folks in Foxborough are dealing with health-related matters under the radar. … Rookie Matthew Slater worked out with the receivers and donned a white practice jersey throughout the day. Also, Ray Ventrone swapped his blue No. 41 jersey for a white one and worked out at wide receiver rather than as a safety. … Since it's called passing camp it's only natural to focus on the guys doing the passing. With that in mind, Matt Gutierrez looked sharp, delivering the ball on target and with authority. Rookie Kevin O'Connell showed some improvement from his rookie mini-camp weekend and was much more accurate although Belichick said he and the rest of the rookies have "a long way to go."