DeSean Jackson hasn't made the Pro Bowl since 2010. (USA Today Images)
He just looks different. You don’t have to watch DeSean Jackson very long to tell.
Physically, yeah, he looks different. A little bigger, a little more defined, maybe even a little faster now that he’s healthy again.
Then watch him practice. This is no longer the kid out of Cal who had so much natural talent he could afford to take a shortcut here and there on the practice field. This is no longer the kid out of Cal who relied only on his pure speed to define his game.
Watch Jackson this whole summer, and you realize there’s a new aura about him, a new vibe. Somehow, he’s now one of the most senior players on the roster, and there’s a seriousness about his game now, a work ethic and veteran approach that wasn’t always present in the past.
It’s early. It’s August. But it looks like something has clicked. Something is different. You can just tell.
He goes all-out every drill. He doesn’t take plays off. He’s engaged with his teammates and coaches.
It looks like he’s grown up.
“DeSean, I think he’s just gotten it together,” said LeSean McCoy, the only other Pro Bowl player the Eagles have drafted since 2005. “His attitude’s different. I think a lot of guys forgot what type of player he really is, what kind of player he was earlier in his career. I think in this league that can happen. He’s proving it all over again.”
Once upon a time, Jackson was one of the most electrifying players in the NFL.
He made the Pro Bowl in 2009 and 2010, caught 17 touchdown passes in his first three seasons, led the NFL with 22.5 yards per catch in 2010, caught a ridiculous eight touchdowns of 50 yards or more before his 24th birthday, second-most in NFL history behind Randy Moss.
The last couple years, Jackson has been OK when he’s been healthy, but he hasn’t been special. He hasn’t had a 1,000-yard season or made the Pro Bowl since 2010, and after scoring 16 touchdowns of 40 or more yards in his first three years, he has just two the last two years.
Jackson did a lot of reflecting this offseason. He knew he didn’t want to go through another nightmare like last year, when the Eagles were 4-12, he got into the end zone just twice and then he missed the second half of the season with rib and cartilage injuries.
He didn’t want to be a guy who had terrific seasons early in his career and then never approached them again.
So he worked. Harder than he ever has.
So far this summer, his new attitude shows. He’s catching everything – in 1-on-1, 7-on-7, 11-on-11 – and for the first time in a few years, he looks like that dazzling speedster the Eagles drafted in the second round back in 2008.
“I’m just real dedicated,” Jackson said after practice Sunday. “I put in a lot of hard work. People were kind of down-talking me, saying a lot of things about me the past two years, about my career, so I’m just trying to get back to where I was at the first couple years coming in and taking the steps I need to better myself.
“Whatever it is, whatever I need to do to get back to that point and to become a better player than I’ve ever been, I’m willing to do that.”
So far, so good.
After five years under Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg, Jackson appears rejuvenated with a new coach and staff, a new offense, a new approach.
He’s added a bunch of routes to his repertoire – stuff across the middle, underneath routes -- and he doesn’t just run deep anymore.
“Just to get people to bite underneath and then over the top there’ll be a lot more big plays,” he said.
The speed that he seemed to lose a bit of looks like it’s been fully restored. In an offense built on tempo, he looks like a perfect fit.
“Definitely feel like I can do a lot more than I have in the past,” Jackson said. “This year, I feel this is going to be a big year for me, a big year for our team. Just taking on the load, whatever the team needs, that’s what I’m here for. The sky’s the limit.
“I just feel all the work we put in since April, since Chip [Kelly] got here, everything’s flying right now and we just want to keep up the pace.
“I feel healthy, man. It’s all about going back out there and having fun. This game is a lot of hard work and dedication, but when you’re having fun and enjoying it that’s the biggest thing, and I just feel like I’m having fun right now.”
The Eagles’ secondary isn’t having fun, not when it has to cover Jackson.
He’s been the best player in camp. Nobody can stop him. Maybe that says as much about the Eagles’ secondary as Jackson, but the Patriots couldn’t stop him either, not in the joint practices and not in the preseason opener, when he sped under a Michael Vick bomb for a 47-yard touchdown.
“He’s got crazy speed,” receiver Greg Salas said. “It’s crazy just to watch him pull past people effortlessly, without him looking like he’s trying too hard. He’s an amazing athlete. It’s fun to watch. When someone’s pressing him, you know he’s going to go up top on him.
“He wants to be the best receiver and he’s capable of being that. It’s fun to come out here and watch him work every day and just really blow up defenses. It seems like every practice he’s going for a 50-yard touchdown, 60-yard touchdown, and then he comes out in the first preseason game and does the same thing against a good corner. It’s fun to watch.”
Jackson is already seventh in Eagles history with 4,785 receiving yards and 13th with 274 catches, but he could be in the top five in both categories by the end of the year.
He’s only 26, and he’s determined to prove that his best years aren’t behind him.
“I think he’s back,” said McCoy, who led the NFL with 20 touchdowns two years ago. “I think the DeSean Jackson that we always knew about and saw and missed is back.
“I think Coach Kelly has a lot to do with it. I think [Jackson's] attitude is different. Just the way he’s working in the weight room, conditioning wise, the way he’s practicing, I think he’s back.
“I know what type of playmaker he is and I think he’s going to make everybody out there remember what kind of player he is. They’ll know. He’s doing it every day in practice, and he just showed a little bit of it the other night in the first game. So just imagine when he really does turn it on. It’s going to be unbelievable.”
A career year? That’s what Jackson is shooting for.
He wants to be the best receiver in football.
“That’s what I’m working so hard for,” he said. “I’m going on my sixth year now. I feel like I’m a veteran, I‘ve been around here for a long time and I feel comfortable in my game and my teammates and the things we do with Jason Avant, [Brent] Celek, McCoy.
“We all said we were going to do this for Mac (Jeremy Maclin). It was tough for us to see him go down. We just want to go out there, have fun and do big things this year.”
McCoy shakes his head at the possibilities and forgets for a moment that Michael Vick isn’t officially the opening-day starter.
“I think DeSean’s going to have a great year,” he said. “With D-Jack, myself, Mike, put together? I don’t know how you’re going to stop it.”