Article Title: Aerial Assault Confirmed.
Everyone that is a San Francisco 49er fan this past April during the 2007 NFL draft had a preconceived notion that the organization was looking for a wide receiver somewhere in this draft. It was just a matter of time where they would pick that special someone that would compliment the likes of Arnaz Battle, Ashley Lelie, Brandon Williams and Bryan Gilmore.
The San Francisco 49ers waved goodbye under Mike Nolan’s watch to Antonio Bryant the well-known malcontent that threw a sweaty towel at Dallas Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells prior to becoming a 49er for his brief stint with us. He distanced himself from the team with his emphasis on himself and his antics off the field in becoming embroiled with Bay Area law enforcement.
In came Ashley Lelie, who signed a two-year, $4.3 million dollar contract this past March. Yet he has made no impact upon the team as of yet in mini-camps because he strained his right quadriceps muscle while running on a pass route just during the very beginning of the team’s three-day mini-camp back in May.
He has since made a return to the team’s organized team activities in the first few days in June only to aggravate the injury all over again and has had to sit on the sidelines. This has made room for third round pick Jason Hill from Washington State to shine as big as a full moon at an old- fashioned drive-in movie theater.
At Ashley Lelie’s expense due to his injury, Jason Hill has now moved into the forefront of maybe being the down-the-field threat the 49ers have always envisioned since the Terrell Owen era. He made more than just a few of the coaches turn their collective heads this past month in organized team activity drills by making a few spectacular catches.
Some of those throws came from 14-year veteran back-up quarterback Trent Dilfer who had more than just one kind word to say about Jason Hill that day. In fact he continues to learn and justify the play book as the workouts continue right up and until training camp commences this July.
“He told me, ‘Keep it up, youngster. Keep making plays like that, and we’ll throw you the ball,” Hill said. “My eyes lit up when Trent told me that. As a young guy, that’s what you work hard for. I got a little bit of a confidence boost today.”
The Bay Area high school star who went on to star at Washington State, has made significant strides on the practice field with Ashley Lelie sidelined and veteran free agent acquisition Darrell Jackson out with a toe injury.
Just a few months ago during the draft the Seattle Seahawks leading wide receiver was being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Believe it or not they didn’t even care if it was a division rival in the San Francisco 49ers or not? Who would’ve imagined a division rival to jettison one of their most productive offensive weapons?
Contract negotiations between the Seattle Seahawks and Darrell Jackson had been going on for some time prior to the two days of the 2007 NFL draft. Jackson had fallen out of favor with the organization because of a variety of reasons, one being the acquisition of Deion Branch from the New England Patriots and a serious knee injury Jackson suffered while with Seattle back in 2005.
Branch was New England’s leading wide receiver at the time of the acquisition and was paired alongside Nate Burleson, which made Darrell Jackson on more than one occasion an afterthought. The sudden improvement in D.J. Hackett’s play also signaled an end of the road standoff between the team and Darrell Jackson as well. The Seattle Seahawks therefore asked for a trade to unload the disgruntled receiver and the 49ers under Mike Nolan answered with a fourth round draft pick and a successful physical.
The seven-year veteran has had three 1,000-yard receiving seasons and has been a vital part of the Seattle offense up and until Deion Branch came to town. In 2005 Darrell Jackson had a turn for the worst though by being out for 10 games due to knee surgery and in 2006 he missed the last three games due to turf toe and it has crept back and reared its ugly head here during organized training activities.
So now here is the real question is Darrell Jackson now a potential bust or will he assist us in making the playoffs this season? Those are now the nagging questions in many a mind as we look back at the injury history of Jackson and see where he’s at right now. When you really think hard for a moment one fact suddenly comes to each and every 49er mind out there. We haven’t had a 1,000-yard wide receiver since Terrell Owens in 2003.
Darrell Jackson could in fact be the gift we have all been looking for in our offensive arsenal after surpassing three seasons at the 1,000-yard level already and nearly a fourth. And Darrell Jackson answered the 49ers by making this observation about their offense.
“By me coming here, Ashley Lelie coming here, the core guys we already had, we want to take some pressure off the running game. When they put eight men in the box, that’s going to create some opportunities for us to have big plays and stretch the defense and maybe get another 1,000-yard receiver here.”
As all of you know, Frank Gore was the San Francisco 49er offense in a nutshell last season. Establishing a unit of wide receivers has been something that Mike Nolan and Scot McCloughan have been waiting and searching for. The opportunity has now presented itself to them by way of salary cap health and the steady development of up and coming receivers in Arnaz Battle, Brandon Williams and even Marcus Maxwell.
“San Francisco was known as a receiver’s paradise, but the last couple of years, with Frank Gore running the ball the way he has, they became a one-dimensional team,” Jackson said.
Now with Jason Hill in the mix along with improved skills being displayed out on the practice field by Brandon Williams, real competition and depth are now starting to take hold on this once fragile unit. Jackson led the Seahawks with 63 catches last year for 956-yards and a career-high 10 touchdowns. In all her has manufactured 47 touchdowns that add up to 14.6-yards on an average on 441 career receptions.
He has been Seattle’s most productive wide receiver on record and still believes he has enough left to make the 49ers a playoff contender right away. Just in case nobody knew, the San Francisco 49ers defeated Seattle twice last season and is the greatest threat to them becoming a four-time NFC West division champion again.
“I think I got five more years before I start to break down and really slow down,’ Jackson said. “I just see myself coming in trying to help the 49ers win some games and help out the wide receiving core. I was a big part of (Seattle’s) success from a wide receiver standpoint, and me bringing my stats and ability over here might put us over the edge.”
Certainly a bit of self-confidence here, but that in turn can be a good thing if you really think about it. As long as it doesn’t become overconfidence to the likes of many former wide receivers that have been here and gone, we can strike a perfect balance. Darrell Jackson provides the team much needed insurance in its receiving arsenal that wasn’t in existence at all two seasons and counting ago.
Just a year ago, it was Arnaz Battle that led the 49er wide receivers with 59 receptions. He broke out with a solid season and stunned a lot of fans with his ingenuity and versatility to adapt to almost anything that was thrown his way. He caught 23 passes on third down and his 733 receiving yards led the team. No one knows the importance of developing a passing attack more than quarterback Alex Smith entering his junior season as a starter in the NFL.
“It’s important just to have the threat of the passing game,” Smith said. “It’s a key to have that big-play potential to help out our running game. We’ve certainly had our ups-and-downs in the passing game, but I’m definitely excited about where he’s headed.”
Whatever lies ahead is the unknown with this group. Darrell Jackson is now listening to what the 49er trainers are telling him to do in regards to his turf toe he missed some games towards the end of last season with as a Seattle Seahawk.
Right now his hyper-extended left big toe doesn’t seem to be anywhere near 100%, which in itself has put both Battle, Hill, Gilmore and Williams on a fast track to respectability. Will he be ready for 49ers training camp when it officially opens on July 29th?
Still Jackson shows little concern for spending a certain amount of time training with quarterback Alex Smith. He still believes he’ll be more than ready once training camp commences. Most agree that timing and synchronizing route running with one another is something that should be replicated over and over again.
“His job is to hit the open receiver and my job is to run the route and get open,” Jackson said. “As far as chemistry and having the same timing, that’ll come as the year goes on.”
Still the knowledge that both Ashley Lelie and Darrell Jackson are down and out and not on the field developing a relationship with Alex Smith leads me to believe that one maybe even both will not make the final roster cuts and or anything should either continue down this injury-prone path towards destruction.
“Ashley and Darrell Jackson haven’t practiced yet,” Nolan said. “The maturity of Gilmore and Arnaz Battle is evident. They know where they are going and what they are doing. They are working in sync quite a bit. When we get the other two guys together it will be interesting to see how much better we are.”
As far as the Seattle Seahawks are concerned the primary reason why Darrell Jackson isn’t with them anymore is because of Jackson’s anger with the Seahawks for refusing to re-negotiate the $25 million, six-year contract that he signed before the 2004 season. From those conversations Mike Holmgren the head coach said he heard trade mentioned a lot more than just once from Darrell Jackson.
All in all the fallout left Darrell Jackson looking at other opportunities for employment. He sustained a knee injury as well back in 2005 that had him out of 10 games and disagreed with team doctors on what approach to take to cure it. He did make a return to play in all of Seattle’s post-season games though where he set a Super Bowl record with five receptions in the first quarter of the Seahawk’s loss to Pittsburgh in February 2006.
Once Seattle Seahawk President Bob Whitsitt was fired so was the handshake between Darrell and him to re-do his contract. Under new leadership with President and General Manager Tim Ruskell and Mike Holmgren as an influential head coach the new direction of the franchise was to move ahead without Darrell Jackson.
The underlying concern though in San Francisco is that Jackson get back to some normalcy in his health status and become an active participator in training camp and beyond. It will be interesting to see if he can be the big name guy the 49ers have been missing since 2003.
The competition at this position regardless if it is the flanker or split end will be intense and interesting to watch. We will have someone breakout and shine, the numbers are too heavy for this not to happen. What order they fall will be determined I believe by the total experience each player has out on the field now. Darrell Jackson has the ability to come right in despite missing time and contribute because he is a proven seasoned veteran. But the need to be seen both by the coaches and the fans will be critical factors to him sustaining on what has been promised and paid for.
You have to sit back though and understand what is being acquired. The 49ers gave up a fourth round draft pick to acquire all the rights to Darrell Jackson who by the way led the NFL in total touchdowns prior to his toe injury this past December. He is inside the prime of his career at 28-years old and comes to a wide receiving unit that has been relatively under-performing to all of our expectations.
Ashley Lelie who is the other free agent is injured as well and even before that hasn’t established his real niche yet inside the NFL. Darrell Jackson being a seasoned veteran and an accomplished receiver will take the lead as the No.#1 wide receiver with Arnaz Battle and Ashley Lelie ranked still together at No.#3.
Whoever is the winner of the training camp competition and shines throughout the pre-season games will win the No.#2 spot that each of them will compete for. Newly drafted Jason Hill will also push for playing time and has the ringing endorsement of Jackson who has watched him as a collegiate superstar in his neck of the woods.
“If we were picking someone at 124, which is what we gave (Seattle), I don’t know if we would have gotten Darrell Jackson right there,” said Nolan, who had to fight back a smile as those words seeped from his mouth. “So I feel good about that. But (Seattle)’s going to get a young player that they feel they can groom. But from our standpoint, we didn’t feel there was the same player then.”
One thing can be said to help sooth the concerns and questions regarding Darrell Jackson and his injured past in that the 49ers just didn’t rush to judgment on this individual they actually did some real intensive homework prior to putting him in a 49er uniform. The 49ers made it abundantly clear that he had to pass a team physical before the deal was finalized and he did that with flying colors.
And the team has exclusive inside coverage on Jackson and what he is capable of in helping the 49ers get back to contention through Scot McCloughan, San Francisco’s elite personnel chief, was Seattle’s director of college scouting from 2000-2004 before he came to us. So the facts are what Scot knows to be true of Darrell Jackson and what his character and veteran influence will do for our team.
“I had five years with Darrell Jackson,” McCloughan said. “I know him as a person and I know him as a player. I know what he brings during the week of practice and what he brings on Sundays. Darrell fits with what we’re looking for in a football player. I know his make-up. I know how important it is to him to be a good player and to be a team player. From that standpoint it was a slam dunk.”
As far as his salary is concerned Darrell is scheduled to make $3.25 million this season, $4 million in 2008 and $4.75 million in 2009. Scot indicated that the 49ers changed some of the wording in his contract he had with Seattle but that the overall money stayed the same. In that light Jackson is signed with us under the terms of the agreement right through 2009. Should Darrell prove his worth from the starting gate we really did get a great value here.
Anyway you look at it though we stole Seattle’s top line offensive weapon in their passing game and made him one of our own. He does have a chip on his shoulder towards Seattle for its refusal to move forward with him and not honoring the contract they made with him. Payback is on Darrell Jackson’s mind.
In fact Darrell Jackson just may the one offensive weapon that propels us right past the Seattle Seahawks this season as the National Football Conference’s Western Division Champion. Wouldn’t that be a delightful thought?
Sources of Information: SF Illustrated, The Sacramento Bee, Inside Bay Area and my own personal analysis and opinion.