No stage fright for NFC East rookies
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
The fact that opposing defensive coordinators are already devising game plans around Eagles rookie wide receiver DeSean Jackson speaks to the impact he's had on the league. Other than the brilliant but ill-fated T.O. era, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb has spent his career throwing to players who would be third or fourth receivers on other teams.
The Todd Pinkstons and James Thrashes of the world served a purpose, but for the most part, McNabb has made do with somewhat average weapons on the outside. That's why it seems remarkable that after one regular-season game Jackson forced Cowboys defensive coordinator Brian Stewart to account for him on every play. In case you didn't know, defensive coaches loathe admitting that they're having to sell out to stop one player. That's not what Stewart did, but you get the feeling he might think about it in December.
The intent was to not let Jackson beat them deep under any circumstances, but there he was racing toward a 61-yard touchdown in the second quarter. The fact that he dropped the ball at the 1-yard line goes down as an embarrassing footnote, but it does nothing to diminish his immense talent. When's the last time an NFL receiver began his career with two consecutive 100-yard games? Does 1940 sound about right? (It was another Eagle, Don Looney.)
In most divisions, Jackson would be stealing all the headlines, but this is the Beast we're talking about. Other than the second-round receivers in Washington (so far), the Day 1 draftees look like keepers. Of course, people get fired if they're not, but that's another column.
|Chris Horton, left, was named NFC defensive player of the week for his performance against the Saints.|
In Washington, a folk hero named Chris Horton has emerged. He woke up Sunday morning and received a text message from starting safety Reed Doughty telling him that he might be too sick to play. Horton destroyed everything in his path (including teammates) early in the preseason. He didn't care that he'd been taken five rounds after the underwhelming duo of Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas. The former UCLA player seemed to have a nose for the football, and that's a good thing for a defense that desperately needs to force turnovers.
In his first career start Sunday against the Saints, Horton finished with two interceptions and a fumble recovery in leading his team to a 29-24 victory. He was honored as the NFC defensive player of the week, and he's making it tough for defensive coordinator Greg Blache to keep him off the field.
Former Miami Hurricane Kenny Phillips is having a similar impact for the Giants, who made him the final pick in the first round. In the months that have followed, I've started to hear other teams' scouts talk about how they coveted Phillips. He hasn't cracked the starting lineup yet, but he takes the field in the dime package. GM Jerry Reese and Tom Coughlin know that he'll be starting for the next six or seven years, so there's no rush.
Phillips, though, was the buzz of training camp. He has the rare ability to make plays in coverage and then be physical near the line of scrimmage. In the tradition of other safeties from the U, he loves to punish opposing players.
"You don't like playing against guys like that," Plaxico Burress recently told the New York Times. "They can be in the middle of the field, the quarterback can look him off, throw to the other side of the field, and he's right there to put his helmet under your chin or pick the football off. There's only a few guys in the league that can do things like that."
When I sat down with Reese during training camp for an hour, the conversation kept turning back to Phillips. He sorts of glides around the field, but when the ball is thrown, he has what scouts refer to as "sudden speed." And the fact that he has excellent ball skills gives him the potential to be a six- or seven-interceptions-a-season guy.
The Cowboys made a decision in April to take a complementary back in Felix Jones over feature back Rashard Mendenhall out of Illinois. So far, it looks like a smart choice. Jones flashed his speed early in the preseason, but everyone had been waiting to see what he could do in the return game. The Cowboys haven't had a consistent threat in the return game in years. Maybe you could count Reggie Swinton, but even that's a stretch. With Jones returning kicks and Adam Jones punts, the return game appears to be a strength for the team.
Playing in his first Monday night game, Jones took one back 98 yards for a touchdown against the Eagles. Some Cowboys fans have worried about Jones getting hurt returning kicks, but it's tough to suffer an injury when no one touches you.
I've talked to former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt and offensive coordinator David Lee about Jones. They say the only thing more impressive than his speed and vision is the fact that he's an incredible person off the field. They told stories of how he would take $20 out of his scholarship check and then send the rest home to his parents. No telling what he does now that he's making millions.
If there's another division in the league right now in which rookies are making this type of impact, I'd love to hear about it. Coaches are supposed to be patient with playing rookies, but this bunch is making that impossible.