In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.
It is possible, when one is an extremely talented player, to become known for what you have not done -- what you were supposed to do but did not, in spite of your potential. If Jackson isn't already that kind of player, he's on his way. There is no denying his talent, but at the age of 25 he's already become known for other things. His complaints about his contract situation dominated the news about Jackson during the 2011 season, and his production slipped to unacceptable levels.
But those unacceptable levels were still 58 catches (11 more than he had the previous season) for 961 yards -- an average of 16.6 yards per catch. The fact that that average is more than a yard under his career average, along with the fact that he only had four touchdowns, have Jackson flying under the radar as the 2012 season approaches. The Eagles believe that the resolution of the contract issues (he has a new long-term deal) will help unlock the tremendous talent he flashed in his first three seasons, and that he will be a high-level weapon for them on offense this season.
We'll see about all that, of course. Jackson's placement on this list was a complicated issue for me. Were he still the Eagles' primary punt returner, or if he were coming off a season like the one he had in 2009, he'd likely be much higher. Based on his production the past two seasons, you could make the case for leaving him off entirely. But what keeps him on is his latent talent. I don't believe there's a faster player in the entire league, or one more terrifying to opposing defenses when he has the ball. He needs to get the ball more, and he bears a good portion of the responsibility for that. But assuming the worst of his focus issues are behind him along with the contract concerns, I think 2012 will show us a bit more return on Jackson's remarkable ability. And if it does, he's likely to rocket up next year's edition of this list.
Rankings so far:
18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles
20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants