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He's ready to play catch-up

Jackson needs a breakout season to snare playing time with Patriots

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / July 19, 2008

Chad Jackson was about to board a flight to St. Louis for Laurence Maroney's football camp as he discussed his preparation for the upcoming Patriots season, which launches Thursday with the start of training camp in Foxborough.

An airport provided the perfect milieu for the phone conversation because the Patriots are still waiting for Jackson to take off.

Entering his third NFL season, the 6-foot-1-inch, 215-pound wide receiver is finally healthy and focused, positioned to capitalize on his tantalizing talent, provide the Patriots with another option at receiver, and prove wrong those who have already anointed him Bethel Johnson 2.0, a speedy pass-catcher who plays better in shorts than he does in shoulder pads.

Few Patriots players have as much to gain - or lose - during training camp as Jackson, for whom the Patriots traded up to take with the 36th overall selection in the 2006 draft. In his first two seasons, the former University of Florida standout had 13 receptions for 152 yards and three touchdowns.

Not exactly what he - or the Patriots - had in mind.

But with the departure of Donte' Stallworth to Cleveland, the third receiver spot alongside Randy Moss and Wes Welker is up for grabs, and Jackson, along with Jabar Gaffney and Kelley Washington, will have a chance to seize it. Jackson wouldn't say this was a make-or-break year, but he's acknowledged its importance in determining whether he'll be labeled a late bloomer or a bust.

"It could be a big year for me," said Jackson. "I hope it is, and I'm going to work hard to make it a big year because I need one."

Jackson has followed the career of the wide receiver drafted with the pick the Patriots traded (No. 52 overall) - along with a third-rounder - to get Jackson. That player is the Green Bay Packers' Greg Jennings, who last season had 53 receptions for 920 yards and 12 touchdowns, which tied for second in the NFC behind the Dallas Cowboys' Terrell Owens (15).

"Guys like Jennings, Santonio Holmes [of the Pittsburgh Steelers] was in my class and a couple of other guys. I feel like I can do the same thing," said Jackson. "That's why I got drafted as high as I did. Now I have to take advantage of the opportunity to show what I can really do."

To prepare for training camp, Jackson spent extra time during the Patriots' offseason program and passing camps in the classroom with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and wide receivers coach Bill O'Brien reviewing plays and the responsibilities of the different positions - split end, flanker, slot receiver - on each play.

Last year at this time, Jackson was coming off anterior cruciate ligament surgery he suffered playing special teams in the AFC Championship game loss to the Indianapolis Colts. He started the 2007 season on the physically-unable-to-perform list and wasn't activated until Nov. 7. He played in two regular-season games and one playoff game but didn't catch a pass, relegated to punt and kickoff return duties.

As frustrating as last season was, it may have served as the turning point in Jackson's career. Not playing, even when healthy, gave him perspective. The Patriots, who went 16-0 last season, didn't need Jackson. That was eye-opening.

"I felt like that every week. I felt like I wasn't a part of the team," said Jackson. "Like they didn't need me. In that situation, it was hard not to feel that way. But I did the only thing I could do, which was go out and work hard, go hard in practice, and help out the defense, help them get ready for that week. Now I have an opportunity to go out and play and I'm looking forward to that."

Chalk up some of Jackson's inconsistency and immaturity in his first two seasons to age. He turned 23 in March.

Three of the Patriots' draft picks from April, cornerback Jonathan Wilhite and linebackers Shawn Crable and Bo Ruud, are older than Jackson.

Born March 6, 1985, Jackson is more than a year younger than Wilhite, and he's only two months older than second-rounder Terrence Wheatley and third-rounder Kevin O'Connell.

Jackson acknowledged that he's done some growing up since his rookie season, when he was unfairly expected to replace Deion Branch.

"Definitely, no doubt about it," Jackson said. "My maturity level has gone up a lot. [It's] just realizing what I'm doing, and that the opportunity in front of me can be taken away at any time. That happened to me last season. Now I get to go back and get it."

Maybe that's why Jackson is jacked up about training camp, which for most NFL players is the equivalent of jury duty - a necessary but time-consuming and tedious task.

"I'm excited to get camp started," said Jackson. "I don't know how long that will last - about a week and then I'll have the same dread as everybody else."

Jackson chuckled after that, but he's serious about stepping up his play.

"I have a job I have to go get; they're not going to give it to me," he said. "I have to go out and work to get it. Whether it's being the first receiver, the second receiver, the third receiver, or the fourth receiver, I got to work for it."

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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