BETHLEHEM - The smart money says that if rookie DeSean Jackson is able to keep his tiny little body in one piece this summer - which is a big if for a 5-9 guy who weighs slightly more than Shawn Andrews' right leg - he'll provide an immediate boost to an Eagles return game that had trouble getting out of its own way last season.
As for the immediate impact the second-round wide receiver from Cal might have on the Eagles' offense, well, optimism is in much shorter supply there.
Rookie wide receivers historically have been as quiet as church mice in Andy Reid's West Coast offense. The fact that Reid's playbook is thicker than 10 James Michener novels is one reason for that. The fact that the Eagles haven't done a very good job of drafting wideouts is another (see: Freddie Mitchell, Billy McMullen, Na Brown, Gari Scott, et al).
Jackson is the 11th wideout drafted by the Eagles during the Reid era. Just three of the previous 10 caught more than 10 passes as rookies. Only one managed to catch more than 21. That was current starter Reggie Brown, who had 43 receptions as a rookie in '05.
Despite missing more than a week of practice at the team's final spring passing camp in June with a hamstring injury, Jackson doesn't seem to be having much trouble getting his arms around the Eagles' offense.
"I spent a lot of time this spring with coach Reid and [offensive coordinator] coach Marty [Mornhinweg] and [wide receivers] coach [David] Culley getting comfortable with the offense," Jackson said. "I'm at a point where I feel comfortable with it and am just working hard to get everything right.
"I was telling coach Culley that the offense really hasn't been a struggle for me. I feel like I'm a smart and intelligent dude. In college, I came in and played early. I want to do the same thing here. There's more terminology and more plays here [than at Cal]. But I feel very comfortable with everything so far."
Reid has been pleased with what he has seen from Jackson in the spring minicamps and the first 2 days of the rookie portion of training camp.
"He's picking things up well," he said. "He's a sharp kid. He has a nice feel for the game. We'll just see how he does once the hitting starts [on Saturday]."
Jackson, who returned six punts for touchdowns and averaged 16.7 yards per return at Cal, is expected to be the Eagles' season-opening punt returner. Special-teams coordinator Rory Segrest has said he'll also get a look as a kickoff returner, though Jackson didn't return kickoffs in college.
His role in the Eagles' offense will be determined by how he does in training camp and the preseason. Kevin Curtis and Brown are entrenched as the starters. Curtis caught 77 passes for 1,110 yards and six touchdowns last season. Brown finished strong after a slow start and had 61 receptions.
Beyond those two spots, though, nothing is etched in stone. The Eagles' other three returning wideouts are Jason Avant (23 catches in '07), Hank Baskett (16) and Greg Lewis (13).
"I feel like they're putting a lot of hard work into me as far as knowing the plays, knowing everything," Jackson said. "I feel great about my opportunity to be able to come in [and play]. I'm not going to say I'm coming in and starting every play. But I want to come in and play as soon as possible."
Quarterback Donovan McNabb would love that, too. But he's taking a conservative approach regarding the rookie.
"You don't want to put that much pressure on a new guy who you're asking to step in and play a major role," McNabb said. "In DeSean's case, we know special teams will be big for him and big for us to have him back there on punt returns and kick returns.
"We have [other] guys who can make plays for us, but I think he will definitely help for certain situations on the offensive side."
In the spring minicamps and the first 2 days at Lehigh, Jackson has gotten work at most of the wide-receiver spots.
"I'm trying to learn 3-4 different positions," the rookie said. "I want to make plays every way possible for this team. So far, it's been good."
Jackson certainly doesn't lack confidence. But he was red-flagged by some NFL teams before the draft, because of his small size and what they perceived as a questionable attitude.
"He was off our board," a scout for an NFC team told the Daily News after the draft. "We just didn't want to deal with the body of work - the body makeup, the attitude. He's got Ocho Cinco [Chad Johnson]-Terrell Owens traits. He's a mouthy little guy. He's not a good route-runner. And he's not good away from the ball."
Jackson has not done anything Owens-like yet in his 3 months with the Eagles. Although it did raise a few eyebrows when he turned down McNabb's offer to work out with him in Arizona earlier this month.
"I stayed in California and worked out," Jackson said. "I have a private coach."
In Jackson's defense, he wasn't the only Eagles wideout to tell McNabb thanks but no thanks. Curtis and Brown also were no-shows.
What Jackson needs to do most these next few weeks is stay healthy. He said the hamstring injury that sidelined him at the June passing camp is "95 percent better." He said it was the first hamstring injury he has had in his life.
"I did a lot of running in minicamp that I wasn't used to doing," he said. "It was unfortunate. Now, I just have to stay on top of it and make sure it continues to feel good.
"I never had a problem with hammys before. It was just one of those things where I was taking a lot of reps I wasn't used to taking. Unlike college, this is the NFL and I have to prove myself and push it as hard as I can. But now I feel my body's acclimated to it and I'm ready to put in the hard work." *