Eleven years ago, not long before the Eagles selected him in the second round of the 2008 draft, DeSean Jackson ran a sizzling 4.35-second 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
It wasn’t the fastest 40-yard dash at the combine that year. Six other players, including a guy the Eagles released last week, cornerback Orlando Scandrick, had faster times. But it still was pretty darn fast.
Athletes are supposed to lose a step or two or three with age. They’re supposed to be forced to rely on other skills that erode at a slightly slower pace. Which is where the term wily veteran came from.
But Jackson appears to be the exception to that rule. As he closes in on his 33rd birthday, there’s been no skill erosion. He appears to be every bit as catch-me-if-you-can fast as he was that February day in 2008.
“It’s pretty remarkable,” Eagles tight end Zach Ertz said. “He’s still one of the four or five fastest guys in the league. I’d put him up against anybody. Him and [the Chiefs’] Tyreek Hill would be a hell of a race.”
"I don’t think we’ve seen him turn it all the way up yet," said Eagles radio analyst Mike Quick, a five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver. "I think he just runs at a different speed than everyone else on the field, and he’ll use as much of it as he needs in a specific situation."
Jackson hasn’t had more than 56 receptions in a season since his 2013 swan song in Philly when he put up career highs in catches (82), receiving yards (1,332) and touchdowns (nine), only to be sent packing by Chip Kelly.
But as Jackson has proved time and again during his 11-year career, he doesn’t have to be targeted a lot to have a significant impact on the offense.
"Just him being out there is going to change the dynamic for this offense and what the defense presents us," Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz said.
"You can argue that [a deep threat] is something that we were missing last year. So him being able to stretch the field, whether he’s getting five to 10 touches a game or just blowing the top off the defense and opening everything else up for the other guys, I know he’s going to help us tremendously."
Nobody knows better the impact Jackson can have on an offense and an opposing defense than the guy who coaches the team Jackson and the Eagles are going to play Sunday at the Linc in their season opener, the Redskins’ Jay Gruden.
Jackson played for Gruden in Washington for three years, 2014-16. Led the league in yards per catch in two of those years and created a ton of space in the middle of the field with his speed, which helped tight end Jordan Reed and slot receiver Jamison Crowder thrive.
Reed caught a career-high 87 passes and 11 touchdowns in 2015 when he was Jackson’s teammate. Crowder caught 59 passes that year and 67 the next season.
Jackson had the same impact the last two years with Tampa Bay. While he only caught 41 passes last season, tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate combined for 11 touchdown catches, and wide receiver Mike Evans had career highs in receiving yards (1,524) and yards per catch (17.7).
Just go back to his last year with the Eagles in 2014. Thanks largely to Jackson, Riley Cooper averaged 17.8 yards per catch and had eight touchdowns. A year later, without Jackson, Cooper averaged 10.5 yards per catch and had three TDs. The year after that, he was out of football.
"DeSean has to be targeted if you want him to like you," Gruden joked. "He got a little frustrated at times with me because we didn’t throw to him enough. But I love the guy. He made our team better, that’s for sure.
"He can take the top off [a defense]. And even if he just runs that deep post route, he takes two [defenders] with him and it’s going to open things up for his pals Zach Ertz or Alshon Jeffery. That’s something he’s starting to understand. That is just as important as him getting the ball."
Jackson has 63 catches of 40 yards or more in his career. Had a career-high 13 in his first year with the Redskins but has had just 15 since then, even though he led the league in yards per catch in 2016 (17.9) and ’18 (18.9).
Quick thinks Jackson probably will average about three catches a game with the Eagles, which would bring him in just under 50 for the season. But he said that number alone won’t be an indicator of what he’s going to mean to the offense.
"He’s just going to make a difference in this offense," Quick said. "He makes defenses play you differently. And that’s the value that he brings. It’s a different game with him on the field because everyone on the field knows what he can do."
Jackson knows he’s on the Redskins’ minds this week. And he loves it.
"I’m sure they’re sitting in the meetings and watching the film and listening to their coaches say, ‘Don’t let that little whatever beat you,"’ he said.
"I’m sure they’re emphasizing that. But at the end of the day, you still have to stop me, no matter how much film you watch or how much you prepare."
We’ve heard a lot since he signed with the Eagles in March about how much Jackson has matured. That’s evident just talking to him. But just because he’s all grown up doesn’t mean he’s going to be happy watching Ertz and Jeffery and Nelson Agholor and Dallas Goedert and the Eagles’ cast of a thousand receivers catching footballs while he runs clear-out routes.
He likes the fact that he can put the fear of God into defenses without ever touching the football. He just doesn’t want it to become a regular thing.
"I like that about the nature that I bring to the game," Jackson said. "Whatever it is I’m asked to do, whether it’s being a decoy or running a clear-out," he’ll do it.