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PHILADELPHIA Beyond running back Brian Westbrook and wide receiver Kevin Curtis, Donovan McNabb's offensive threats struck very little fear in defenses last year. The Philadelphia Eagles are counting on rookie receiver DeSean Jackson to make things more difficult for the opposition in 2008.
Jackson, one of Philadelphia's two second-round picks in April's NFL draft, has the kind of speed that wows. Jackson, generously listed at 6-feet, 178 pounds, has the speed to run through defenses.
He also has the type of speed that can make an opposing team think twice about just chasing McNabb with the pass rush. Last year, McNabb was sacked 44 times, second-highest total in his career behind the 45 takedowns in 2000.
Ultimately, if the Eagles are going to become a contender again, they need to keep McNabb upright.
Some of the problem last year had to do with McNabb still recovering from a knee injury in 2006. Some of it had to do with scheme. The Eagles just weren't that quick last season. Receivers Reggie Brown and Hank Baskett aren't game-changing threats. So in essence, no one aside from Westbrook and Curtis could make a defense pay for going head-long after the quarterback.
Enter Jackson, who could routinely find himself on the field with Westbrook, Curtis and Lorenzo Booker – a third-round pick from Florida State in '07 who didn't fit the new scheme being put in by head of football operations Bill Parcells and his crew.
"What we can do right now is move people around, put some pretty interesting groups out there," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "DeSean will be in a lot of places for us, the slot, outside, places where we feel we can get matchup problems."
What the Eagles can do is make opponents pay for mistakes, particularly if opponents try to blitz.
That was obvious during a drill at the team's rookie mini-camp session on Thursday when Jackson ran through a zone coverage for a deep pass that would have been a touchdown. Jackson just glided through the defense with an almost deceptive stride. For a somewhat smaller player, Jackson runs smooth.
Still, that was May, when big plays in practice are about as meaningful as a teenager with peach fuzz at a biker bar.
The problem is that Jackson has this tendency to act like a kid who thinks it's cool to sit in the back of class and stare at the ceiling tiles with a disaffected attitude. During every individual drill, Jackson was the last in line to do the exercise. When wide receivers coach David Culley stopped to talk to the group, Jackson was the first (and often the only) one to take off his helmet. He looked off in every direction except directly at Culley.
About the only time Jackson seemed to pay full attention was when Reid was observing up close. In the NFL, you have to work harder than just when the big boss is looking.
All of that makes you wonder if Jackson gets the big picture, if he understands that he's part of a big plan to put one extraordinarily quick offensive unit on the field from time to time; the type of unit that could ruin the great pass-rushing defenses from the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins. The defenses that made McNabb's life miserable a year ago.
"I understand what people have said about me, but you can't do nothing about what people say except go out and prove them wrong," said Jackson, who many people expected to be a first-round pick when he declared to come out of Cal after his junior season. "That's what I'm going to do now, prove them all wrong."
To that end, Jackson has been with the Eagles since being drafted. Later this summer, he's expected to hook up with McNabb in Arizona for some individual work being pushed by the team. The obvious hope from Reid and his staff is that McNabb will see the quickness the Eagles have assembled around him and feel better about the team's chances.
"Donovan is going to like what he sees when he spends a lot of time around," offensive coordinator and assistant head coach Marty Mornhinweg said.
Said Jackson: "Everything with Donovan has been real cool and I think when we get together (in Arizona) it's going to be that much better. He'll see what I can bring to the offense and I'll really learn what he's looking for. I already saw in the first mini-camp with him, you have to be sharp with your route because his throws are right on top of you. It's tight."
That's the hope, of course. Otherwise, McNabb, who earlier this offseason said that the Eagles needed to get more "playmakers," may start to grouse again as he did last season when things went poorly. Of all the rumors last season that McNabb may be in his final days as an Eagle, a good many of them were fueled by McNabb's frustration with the offense.
Those rumors won't go away until the Eagles can keep opposing pass rushers at bay.