EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Sports

July 23, 2006

Florida flop or phenom? Pats rookie receiver Jackson immediately under spotlight

FOXBORO - Every time he explodes off the line of scrimmage, cuts across the middle or leaps to make a catch, Chad Jackson carries his new boss's reputation with him.

As Training Camp 2006 opens on Friday here at Gillette Stadium, Bill Belichick - by his frugal offseason maneuvering - will have New England's football faithful scrutinizing Jackson on every snap.

With David Givens and Tim Dwight gone in free agency, Bethel Johnson jettisoned to New Orleans, Troy Brown elegantly sauntering toward retirement and Deion Branch seething in isolation without a new contract, pickings are slim at the wide receiver spot right now.

Jackson, if he has the goods, strides into one of the most lucrative situations in the National Football League.

He's got one of the best deliverers of the football - Tom Brady - to work with.

And Jackson, without a real practice under his belt, already stands atop the receiver depth chart.

It may state that Branch and free-agent pickup Reche Caldwell project as starters at www.patriots.com right now. Few expect Branch to show up on Route 1, at least for a while, and Caldwell's resume, with a grand total of 14 starts in four pro seasons, doesn't exactly ring out with confidence.

Jackson, the 10th University of Florida receiver chosen in the top three rounds of the NFL Draft since 1997 is, at least for now, shying away from any speculation on his production.

"I'm not expecting anything right now," he said. "I'm not expecting to take any spots or any positions or anything like that. I just want to contribute as much as I can."

But Belichick's actions demand more.

First, the team didn't even seriously attempt a bid at Givens, now a Tennessee Titan with a $25 million deal in hand.

Second, there was only a tepid dip into the free-agent pool, yielding Caldwell, a No. 3 receiver at his best in San Diego.

Then there were the draft day machinations, in which the coach forced Denver's hand on free-agent Javon Walker then brilliantly slid up the board in the second round, one pick in front of Mike Shanahan to land Jackson at the 36th overall choice.

Jackson has done little to dispel the ideas that he is the man to pick up the receiving slack, albeit without shoulder pads.

He came into the offseason early and has been meticulous in his participation.

During last month's mini-camp, the 6-foot-1, 202-pounder caught anything thrown his way.

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