FOXBOROUGH - What a difference a year makes. Last year, the Patriots were counting on wide receiver Chad Jackson to help replace top target Deion Branch, who was traded away a day after the 2006 season opener. This year, Jackson can't even count on playing.
The second-year wideout took the first step to getting on the field last Wednesday, when he was activated from the physically unable to perform list and added to the 53-man roster. But he's staring up the depth chart at the likes of Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donté Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney, and Kelley Washington, who has contributed little on offense but has been invaluable on special teams and the scout team.
Still, Jackson, who started the season on PUP thanks to a torn ACL he suffered in the AFC Championship game against the Colts last January, was all smiles yesterday when asked about being activated. Having a chance to play beats tuning in on TV, which is all Jackson would have been doing had the Patriots elected to give him a red-shirt year and place him on injured reserve.
"I had some doubts, that they would probably put me on IR or not activate me," said Jackson. "I was a little worried, a little scared, but, you know, everything worked out fine."
So where does the 6-foot-1-inch, 215-pound Jackson fit in on a team that is 9-0? Anywhere he can.
"I'm just going out there trying to get back on the field, whether it's special teams, doing a couple of [offensive] plays or whatever," said Jackson, who played the part of Indianapolis receiver Reggie Wayne on the scout team leading up to the Patriots' 24-20 win over the Colts before the bye. "I don't want to just be a special teams guy. I want to play receiver also, so that's what I'm here to do. But whatever it is, just help out the team."
It's fitting that Jackson has a chance to make his season debut against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium. It was in that same stadium last year that Jackson had perhaps the best game of his nascent NFL career in a 28-6 New England win. He helped set up the Patriots' first score with a 14-yard reverse and caught the longest touchdown of his career, a 35-yarder from Tom Brady in the third quarter.
Those were glimpses of the talent that compelled coach Bill Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli to surrender a third-round pick to move up in the second round to No. 36 overall and grab Jackson, who was the second receiver selected in the 2006 draft, behind Santonio Holmes of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who was taken 25th.
But that ability has rarely been on display thanks to a battery of injuries. Before the torn ACL, Jackson was hobbled by a hamstring injury that caused him to miss two of the first three games in 2006 and a bothersome groin that cost him two more games in December. He ended his rookie season with 13 catches for 152 yards and three touchdowns.
Jackson said the ACL injury may have been a blessing in disguise. While he was rehabbing in Foxborough during the offseason, he did some remedial work in the classroom with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and wide receivers coach Nick Caserio.
"I think I'm a lot more [ready]," said Jackson, when asked how much further along he was in his sophomore season. "Bill, he's given me good credit, so that's good coming from him, and I'm just staying in my playbook, staying on top of things and hoping everything works out."
Jackson has also found an unlikely mentor in Moss, who when not tormenting defenses has been teaching Jackson the finer points of the game.
"Moss, he's been a great guy to me," said Jackson. "He's been a great role model to me and he sat me down to talk to me for a minute. He told me about the game and what he's learned from it and what he's taken from it."
The key to Jackson's development on the field may be his developing maturity off it. The former Florida Gator is still just 22 years old, and last season he was the fifth-youngest player in the league (Buffalo safety Donte Whitner was the youngest).
By comparison, rookie Brandon Meriweather, the Patriots' first-round pick this year, turned 23 last January, almost two months before Jackson celebrated his 22d birthday.
When asked if it crossed his mind that he tore his ACL playing on special teams, Jackson flashed both his childlike innocence and newfound professionalism in the same sentence.
"Oh, it does, it does," said Jackson. "When I was out there, I was like, 'Man, I got hurt on this. Why did I go back on there?' But, you know, it's just to help out the team."
That's just a reminder that Jackson is a work in progress and that a reduced role now might help him in the long run.