Every year through training camp and the preseason, there are under-the-radar acquisitions or young prospects that can come out of nowhere to provide a big lift for their team. Examples of this could include former 7th-round pick Marques Colston of the Saints, former 5th-round pick Zach Thomas for the Dolphins, former 6th-round pick Terrell Davis of the Broncos, and even undrafted free agents like Jason Peters.
While the NFL Draft is obviously very well researched, and players in the league very heavily scouted, players can still come out of nowhere and make a big contribution for a team. On a team like the Bills, with a lack of success in recent years, a young roster, and a new head coach and general manager, conditions are ideal to find guys who can become contributors that other teams may have overlooked.
Part of the fun of training camp and preseason (I don’t think fun in the preseason is necessarily an oxymoron) is finding these players and rooting for them. Personally, I always pick a few guys who I’d like to see make the team and think they could make an impact. Past guys I have rooted for to make the Bills included: undrafted RB Ken Simonton, who was an MVP of NFL Europe, late round draft choice DE Bryce Fisher from Air Force, and the aforementioned Jason Peters. Those players epitomize the mixed bag that comes with rooting for these prospects. Simonton never panned out for the Bills or in the NFL at all, Fisher had some success, though moreso with the Seattle Seahawks, and obviously Peters. You can get enamored with physical tools of a player or maybe success in college, alternate leagues, or even the preseason, and hope that it translates to professional success on Sundays.
One of the guys I will be watching for in training camp and the preseason this year, and hoping he can contribute is WR Chad Jackson, most recently of the Denver Broncos.
While Jackson has bounced around the league a little for only being 25, he is a guy who at one time had a tremendous upside before being setback by injuries and a lack of opportunity. Amanda Bremer of the Buffalo News recently profiled Jackson, and there are many reasons to hold out hope he can be a contributor.
Jackson came out in the 2006 draft as a product of the University of Florida. He declared early for the draft, after a sophomore season in which he had 88 catches for 900 yards and 9 tds. While he didn’t have the highest yards per catch, in his freshman season his role was to stretch the field, and he averaged over 22 yards a catch on 29 catches. He showed the ability to be both a possession receiver and a receiver who could stretch the field. At 6’1″ with a strong frame, Jackson ran a 4.32 in the 40 yard dash. The New England Patriots traded up early in the 2nd round and selected Jackson 36th overall.
Jackson was mainly a prospect for the Patriots his rookie season, playing behind veterans Troy Brown and Reche Caldwell. He had 13 catches for 152 yards and 3 tds in limited action. He tore his ACL in the AFC Championship Game, and ended up missing most of the 2007 season. After being cut in 2008 by the Patriots, the Broncos picked him up for a few games, and released him. Jackson spent 2009 trying to fully recover from injuries and give himself a chance to make a team in 2010.
While Jackson has not had NFL success, he is a 6’1″ 223-pound receiver with great speed, and has now had some time to recover from his ACL injury a few years ago. The Bills are very unsettled at the WR position, and Jackson will have an opportunity to showcase what he can do. Much like James Hardy, Jackson is a guy who had success in college, and has raw tools that can give Bills fans hope they may have found a diamond in the rough. Hardy has not been able to show that he can gain any kind of separation from NFL defensive backs, and is a very unpolished route runner. It will be interesting to see in camp what Chad Jackson is able to bring to the team, and if he can be the guy to land the #4 WR role on the Bills this season.