The Eagles would love to tell you that the reason they drafted DeSean Jackson last year and nobody else did was because they're smarter than the average Bear or Giant or Cowboy. But they know that's not exactly true.
There's a lot of luck involved in the draft. In 1998, the Indianapolis Colts took Peyton Manning with the first pick in the draft and the San Diego Chargers took Ryan Leaf with the second selection. Colts general manager Bill Polian's decision to take Manning over megabust Leaf helped transform the Colts into one of the league's most successful franchises and no doubt has provided a big boost to Polian's eventual Hall-of-Fame chances.
But here's the thing few people realize: If their draft positions had been reversed and the Chargers had taken Manning, Polian would have taken Leaf.
Jackson wasn't the first or second pick in the '08 draft. He was the 49th. Wasn't even the first or second wide receiver taken. He was the seventh.
That's right. The man who leads the NFL in yards per catch and leads the league in punt returns and has scored 10 touchdowns and is tied with Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch and Devin Hester for most 50-yards or more touchdowns in a season, was the seventh wideout taken.
After Donnie Avery (33rd to Rams). After Devin Thomas (34th to Redskins). After Jordy Nelson (36th to Packers. After James Hardy (41st to Bills). After Eddie Royal (42nd to Broncos). After Jerome Simpson (46th to Bengals). Hell, after even defensive tackle Trevor Laws, who the Eagles took with the first of their two second-round picks, at 47.
"How he lasted that late into the second round, I still don't quite understand," Eagles general manager Tom Heckert said.
After the Eagles took Winston Justice in the second round of the '06 draft, coach Andy Reid said he was so high on the Southern Cal offensive tackle that he would have taken him in the first round if the guy they did take, defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley, had been off the board.
That wasn't the case with Jackson last year. While the Eagles had a first-round grade on Jackson, they never considered taking him that early. They ended up trading out of the first round, swapping their first-round pick (No. 19) to Carolina for multiple picks, including the Panthers' '09 first-round selection.
"We weren't really looking for a receiver," Heckert said. "If we had kept our first-round pick, there were some offensive tackles that we liked and even some defensive guys that we liked, too. When we moved out [of the first round], then we were back to the best-available-player approach.
"It was almost like this year with [LeSean] McCoy [who the Eagles took in the second round with the 53rd overall pick]. We thought he would've been gone by then. He was a guy some people were talking about as a possible late-first or top-of-the-second [round] guy. And then he falls to us late in the second round and it's like, 'Wow.' We were obviously happy about it, but it was surprising. There's a lot of luck in the draft, no question about that."
Jackson slid to the Eagles for two reasons: his itty-bitty size (his predraft measurables were 5-9 3/4 and 169 pounds), which many teams felt would make it difficult for him to survive in the land of the NFL giants, and major questions about his attitude, work ethic and coachability.
All of the wideouts that were taken ahead of him were bigger. Some much bigger. In case you have noticed, in the NFL, size matters. Thomas and Simpson both are 6-2. Hardy is 6-5. Even Royal, who is about the same height as Jackson, tipped the scales at 184 at the predraft scouting combine.
"There was a big size difference between DeSean and some of those other guys that went ahead of him," Heckert said. "And that's a valid point. Smaller guys don't always last. I think that's why some teams backed off of him."
There also were concerns that he would have trouble dealing with press coverage because of his size.
"People said he'd have a tough time getting off the line against bigger, stronger corners," Heckert said. "But he's so quick that the bigger corners have no chance against him. It's actually the smaller guys who probably have a better shot against him."
The size factor didn't bother the Eagles. At least not with the 49th pick.
"He should've been a first-round pick," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "He knows it. We know it. He's been one of the best players since he was this big [extending his arm down about 4 feet off the ground], and he's still that big. [Pause for laughter.] No, seriously, he's been the best player since he was small. All the way through high school. He was the biggest recruit Cal had had. The MVP of the Army all-star game out of high school. He's always been the best. And he's transferred that to this league."
The attitude/work ethic/coachability issue probably was even more responsible for Jackson's Draft Day slide than his size. It was a big enough concern that some teams red-flagged him. They either took him completely off their draft board or removed him from consideration in the early rounds.
Jackson was Big Man On Campus at Cal. Knew it and acted like it. So did his late father, who was to Cal head coach Jeff Tedford and his staff what Bonnie and Carl Lindros once were to Bob Clarke and the Flyers.
"He had a bad-character rap," Reid said. "We checked into it. I was fortunate that I knew some people out there who knew him when he was younger. There was a pro baseball scout that I knew that knew him and had been in the [family] house and had known him since high school. And his coach was very honest with us. I was grateful he was."
Tedford didn't candy-coat his opinion of Jackson. Told Reid and Heckert the kid was incredibly talented, but also could be a major pain in the butt.
"[Tedford] said, 'Hey, there were some things [that went on], and it was partly my fault. I let him get away with some stuff,' " Heckert said. "He told Andy that if he stayed on him right away [he'd be fine]. He obviously was Cal's best player. [Tedford] said that if he's around other great players and they were doing things right, he thought he'd be fine. We talked to a lot of his teammates, and they said the same thing. We asked them, 'Would you want him on your team?' And every one of them said yes."
Not one wide receiver was taken in the first round of the '08 draft. It was the first time that had happened since 1990.
"We didn't think one would be [taken in the first], but if there was going to be one, we thought it would probably be DeSean," Heckert said. "Then all of these other guys started getting taken ahead of him, and you're like, 'Wow.' I mean, they were guys we liked. It wasn't like teams were reaching for people we had in the fourth round. But we just had a much higher grade on DeSean than we did on the other guys. That's where the luck part comes in. What [other] people like and what other people don't like."
Whatever it was that other people didn't like about DeSean Jackson has worked out very well for the Eagles.
Pro Football Weekly's scouting report on DeSean Jackson before the 2008 draft:
Positives: Is explosive and can flat-out fly. Eats cushion quickly and can get on top of defensive backs. Makes some acrobatic, diving grabs and easily tracks the deep ball. Shows great vision, follows his blockers and can make sharp cuts through traffic and find daylight. Can reverse field and pull away from the pack. Possesses big-play ability.
Negatives: Is short, narrow-framed and has struggled to add weight. Very vulnerable to injury and will struggle to stay healthy. Gets jammed too easily at the line of scrimmage and is not quick into his routes. Marginal run strength. Very average blocker. Immature. Not a great worker. Difficult to manage. Talks to much and thinks he is better than he is.