DeSean Jackson could have gone anywhere.

Instead, the Eagles wide receiver went home.

To be with his father.

Who was battling cancer.

In January, during the Eagles' playoff run, Bill Jackson's pancreatic cancer was diagnosed. DeSean, who was putting the finishing touches on one of the finest rookie seasons in franchise history, kept his father's illness to himself.

This off-season could have been an excuse for Jackson to revel in the spoils of his 2008 success and travel the world. He could have gotten caught up in other distractions, such as the trade rumors that had veteran receivers bound for Philadelphia or the first-round draft pick the Eagles spent on a wide receiver.

But for Jackson, there was time only for work and family. So when he wasn't toiling in the gym in his quest for more strength, the undersize receiver was home in Long Beach, Calif., "just chilling" with his father.

"I was at home like the whole off-season," Jackson said during a quiet moment at his locker after the recent minicamp. "I was just trying to be there as much as possible. He's hanging in there. He's not doing great. But hopefully he'll get better sooner or later."

What a difference a year makes. Last spring, Jackson was the brash young receiver looking to prove he was worth a second-round draft pick despite reservations about his size. A year later, his exploits on the field, coupled with a crisis off it, have ripened the 22-year-old.

And yet, Jackson conceded, he's not that far removed from the rookie who prematurely celebrated a would-be touchdown by flipping the football a yard before the end zone. More important, he's far from a finished product.

"He has that mentality," Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. On May 2, during the minicamp, "he came up to me and said, 'I'm getting better every day.' If you have that mentality, then you don't put a cap on yourself."

Jackson enters the coming season as the de facto receiving ace. He led the team in receptions with 62, receiving yards with 912, and yards per catch with 14.7, and set franchise rookie records for wideouts in each category.

"I still feel like I have to go out there and get my job done and still produce," Jackson said. "It's not about proving, it's about progressing and just getting better. I'm definitely looking to take my game to another level."

His elevation was evident during the first three days of the minicamp.

"He's playing faster," coach Andy Reid said. "He knows what he's doing. I'm comparing it to when he came to this camp the first time. It was all new to him, so he wasn't moving quite as confidently or as fast as he is now."

Reid wasn't implying that Jackson had improved his time in the 40-yard dash. He was saying that a year's experience had slowed things down, the speed of the pro game always being the biggest adjustment for a rookie.

Jackson said he also had "gotten a lot stronger, lifting weights. . . . I feel great right now."

He said a little more muscle might help with blocking and scoring from the red zone, areas he could improve on. He scored only three receiving touchdowns last season - two in the regular season and one in the postseason - although he could have had one more if not for his dubious Monday night faux pas against Dallas.

However, despite the added mass and lots of chicken and pasta, Jackson, who is 5-foot-10, said he still weighed 175 pounds.

"I eat everything," he said. "When I say I eat everything, I eat whatever is put in front of my face. I'm not a big, fat guy so I don't have to watch what I eat."

Jackson did watch the off-season rumor mill. He is an acquaintance of Anquan Boldin, Braylon Edwards and Chad Ocho Cinco (Chad Johnson) - all veteran receivers that have been linked to the Eagles - but didn't contact any of them to gossip.

"It probably would have been a great addition to our offense with me being the one receiver and their having a little more experience," Jackson said. "But it didn't work out, and we got Jeremy."

That would be Jeremy Maclin. Jackson said he was driving when the Eagles traded up to take the Missouri receiver with the 19th pick. A few friends called to let him know. His initial reaction: "That's cool. I hope he can come in and help out."

Some have compared the two, but Maclin, at 6-0 and 198 pounds, is bigger. Jackson is faster. That doesn't mean there won't be competition for playing time, or that Jackson won't view Maclin the same way veterans Kevin Curtis, Jason Avant, Hank Baskett and Reggie Brown viewed Jackson last year.

If Maclin "is good like everybody is saying and he comes in and puts it in," there is going to be competition, Jackson said. "Going from college to the NFL, you have to prove yourself. If he just proves himself . . . then definitely."

Maclin, along with cornerback Ellis Hobbs, could also take some of Jackson's punt-returning responsibilities.

"I'm not going to retire; I'm not going to give it up," said Jackson, who averaged 8.8 yards a return last season and took back one punt for a touchdown. "I'm just going to keep on working at it. But whatever it is [the coaches] think, that's what I'm going to do."

As Maclin said, "I'm playing with the guy, not against him."

Jackson's stall in the locker room has already become frequently sought out, by reporters, teammates and rookies. During one interview, running back LeSean McCoy leaned over Jackson's shoulder and grabbed his lotion.

"Stop messing with my lotion!" Jackson barked.

McCoy laughed, sat down next to Maclin, and shared the ointment with his fellow rookie.

"Now I need two new ones!" Jackson joked.

A few moments later, his tone turned serious when he was asked if his father's plight had followed him back to Philadelphia.

"It motivates me to come back here and just get away from it, and just try to stop and think about it on an everyday basis," Jackson said. "Just do something I love, which is playing football. It's not going to go nowhere because it's my dad. It's just a tough situation. I'm fighting for him."

Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com.