FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- On Thursday morning, hours before the Patriots were to take off for their excursion "across the pond" to London, we had an opportunity to take a stroll down NFL draft memory lane with head coach Bill Belichick.
Despite coming off its second Super Bowl victory in three seasons, the team entered the 2004 NFL draft with a major offensive need: consistency from the running back position. The 2003 squad, which relied upon a mix of runners that included Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk, finished the season 27th in the NFL in rushing.
Just days before the 2004 draft, in which the Patriots held both the 21st and 32nd overall picks, the team acquired Corey Dillon from the Bengals, who would become exactly what the team was lacking.
As it turns out, if the Dillon move hadn't come to fruition, the Patriots may have ended up with current Rams running back Steven Jackson, who was widely considered the top running-back prospect that year after a stellar career at Oregon State.
On Thursday, at his morning press conference, Belichick recalled the team's interest in Jackson prior to the draft, sharing that he even visited Jackson in his hometown of Las Vegas.
"I went out there and met with him, and spent pretty much a whole day out there," recalled Belichick. "He was a very impressive individual. Obviously [a] big, strong kid that runs well, catches the ball very well. Very good in the passing game. I think he's probably a little underrated in that area. Good in blitz pick-up, a smart guy.
"He's really had an outstanding career, and he definitely was a guy that we were very much interested in, and [as] I said, I personally spent quite a bit of time with him," Belichick noted.
Belichick said that personal visits aren't entirely uncommon in the pre-draft process, and that the visit to see Jackson was a case of schedules aligning.
"That was kind of one of those things, it kind of worked out that way. It's easier to go to Vegas than it was to go to Oregon," he said with a laugh. "But there's been plenty of guys, some of them we bring in, some of them we go see, it just happened to work out with the schedule that way. He was an impressive guy coming out and he's obviously had an outstanding career."
Despite his hard-nosed, physical running style, Jackson has managed to stay on the field consistently over the course of his career, and has eclipsed the 1,000 yard rushing mark in each of the previous seven seasons.
Jackson's durability, as well as his ability to hit defenders nearly as much as they hit him, has impressed Belichick.
"It's impressive, it's real impressive," Belichick said of Jackson's durability. "He's had a thousand yards it seems like every year, right? Close to it, whatever it is. But he dishes it out, he probably gives out as much as he takes, and it's not like that with all backs. He's got the quickness to be elusive on the second level and avoid guys, and he's also got the power to put his shoulder down and run through guys. He's a hard guy to tackle."
Belichick also took time to re-emphasize Jackson's ability as a receiver. In 2006, he set a career high with 90 catches, and has recorded at least 40 receptions in each of the past four seasons.
"As I said, his production in the passing game is very good too," Belichick added. "Not just screens, but actual route-running, going out there, beating linebackers. And he's a great target for the quarterback to throw to. It's not a little 5-8 guy you're trying to find, it's a big, tall, strong guy that's got a lot of range and a big catch radius, good hands."