SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. WITH A NEED FOR SPEED, BUCS SHOULD PURSUE JACKSON
In a previous edition of SR’s Fab 5, I questioned whether or not this year’s crop of wide receivers in free agency would be of benefit to the Buccaneers. At the time I questioned whether it would because this year’s group of pass-catchers lacks star power outside of Washington’s DeSean Jackson, and the big question mark with him is his age as he’ll turn 31 this year. At some point he’s going to lose his blazing speed, and when he does, he doesn’t offer much else at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds.
But after seeing how Atlanta signed veteran Mohamed Sanu in free agency and claimed Taylor Gabriel off waivers from Cleveland, and how both receivers helped the Falcons make it to Super Bowl LI, I’m no longer convinced that just having one veteran receiver – albeit a Pro Bowler in Mike Evans – is enough in Tampa Bay for the upcoming season.
Atlanta’s Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones had his best statistical season in 2015 before Sanu and Taylor arrived with 136 catches for 1,871 yards and eight touchdowns, but the Falcons finished with an 8-8 record. When Jones was complemented with more capable receivers like Sanu and Gabriel this past season, Jones’ numbers dipped significantly to 83 catches for 1,409 yards and six touchdowns, but the Falcons won the NFC South with an 11-5 record and made it to the Super Bowl. Atlanta’s offense scored the most points in the league because it had more weapons – not just one big gun in Jones.
Sanu contributed a career-high 59 catches for 653 yards and four touchdowns in his first season with the Falcons, while Gabriel posted 35 receptions for 579 yards and a career-high six scores. Gabriel also added 51 yards and another touchdown on four carries. Both gave Matt Ryan more options to throw to, made the Falcons offense more dynamic and tougher to defend, and helped the Pro Bowl quarterback win the league MVP award as Atlanta scored the most points in the NFL this past season.
The Bucs simply can’t rely on a rookie receiver (or two) to develop alongside Adam Humphries and possibly Russell Shepard (if he’s re-signed) in case Evans suffers an injury that sidelines him for most or all of the upcoming season. The Bucs need a proven, veteran replacement for Vincent Jackson, but that player doesn’t necessarily have to be a 6-foot-5 target, although that’s what Dirk Koetter would prefer.
“I, by nature, prefer big receivers, so that’s just my preference,” Koetter told me at the Reese’s 2017 Senior Bowl. “That’s totally a Dirk Koetter [preference] and not anybody else.”
Jackson certainly doesn’t fit that mold. I’ve stated that Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston could use another big target with a large catch radius to help him as he becomes a more accurate passer, but general manager Jason Licht brought up another good point in our conversation at the Senior Bowl.
“It helps to have a guy with a big catch radius, but so does a guy that can get separation with speed,” Licht said. “You can throw it a little off the mark with that guy because he’s so wide open, so you have to factor that in, too.”
There are several receivers in this year’s draft with speed to burn, including Washington’s John Ross, Western Kentucky’s Taywan Taylor and West Virginia’s Shelton Gibson. But there is also a veteran receiver that can help the Bucs take the top off a defense and make teams pay for double-teaming Evans, and that’s Jackson.
Koetter lamented over the Bucs’ decline in explosive plays last year, and the lack of speed, especially at receiver, is a culprit. Despite turning 30 last year, Jackson has maintained his 4.35 speed.
“When I said the need for speed, I would say offensively we need to make more explosive plays,” Koetter said. “We had a sizeable drop off in that area this year and there are various reasons for it, so you’re always looking for guys that can get the ball in their hand and turn a short gain into a long gain without much help.”
Jackson is that type of player, and that should interest Tampa Bay. As Washington’s No. 2 receiver alongside Pierre Garcon, Jackson had 19 catches of 20 yards or more, including five from 40 yards or beyond. One of those catches was an 80-yard touchdown. The Bucs haven’t had a catch travel 80 yards since Tiquan Underwood’s 85-yard touchdown at Detroit during the 2013 season.
In his first season with the Redskins in 2014, Jackson had 16 catches of 20 yards or more, including a career-high 13 from 40 yards or more with an 81-yard touchdown. In his last year in Philadelphia in 2013, Jackson had an astonishing 25 catches of 20 yards or more with eight of them from 40 yards or more.
Simply put, Jackson is a big play waiting to happen, which makes him an ideal fit for a head coach that loves explosive plays and needs them in his offense.
Here’s a look at Jackson’s prolific career in which he’s caught 498 passes for 8,819 yards and 46 touchdowns with a strong and steady 17.7 yards per catch average. Jackson’s 17.9 yards per catch average in 2016 led the league.
Jackson’s Stats In Washington
2016 – 56 catches for 1,005 yards (17.9 avg.) with 4 TDs and a long of 80 yards
2015 – 30 catches for 528 yards (17.6 avg.) with 4 TDs and a long of 77 yards
2014 – 56 catches for 1,169 yards (20.9 avg.) with 6 TDs and a long of 81 yards
Jackson’s Stats In Philadelphia
2013 – 82 catches for 1,332 yards (16.2 avg.) with 9 TDs and a long of 61 yards
2012 – 45 catches for 700 yards (15.6 avg.) with 2 TDs and a long of 77 yards
2011 – 58 catches for 961 yards (16.6 avg.) with 4 TDs and a long of 62 yards
2010 – 47 catches for 1,056 yards (22.5 avg.) with 6 TDs and a long of 91 yards
2009 – 62 catches for 1,156 yards (18.6 avg.) with 9 TDs and a long of 71 yards
2008 – 62 catches for 912 yards (14.7 avg.) with 2 TDs and a long of 60 yards
To put Jackson’s big-play ability in perspective, Evans had 15 catches of 20 yards or more last year, but only one reception of 40 yards or more. In 2015, Evans had a career-high 21 catches of 20 yards or more and two receptions of 20 yards or more.
The tandem of Evans and Jackson would not only double the amount of dangerous weapons for Winston in the passing game, but it would force more teams to play Cover 2 and keep both safeties back to respect Jackson’s deep speed and Evans’ run-after-catch ability. Getting a safety out of the box would also aid Tampa Bay’s offensive line by helping the running game, and perhaps reduce opponents’ ability to blitz Winston.
I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the free agent receiver the Bucs pursue this offseason is Jackson. In fact, they should.
Every year since becoming Tampa Bay’s general manager, Licht, has made some big splashes in free agency. Some in 2014 were at the insistence of the man who hired him, head coach Lovie Smith, and some were of his own volition over the past two seasons.
Licht’s Major Free Agent Acquisitions
2014 – DE Michael Johnson – 5 years, $43.75 million
2014 – LT Anthony Collins – 5 years, $30 million
2014 – CB Alterraun Verner – 4 years, $25.75 million
2014 – DT Clinton McDonald – 4 years, $12 million
2014 – QB Josh McCown – 2 years, $10 million
2014 – TE Brandon Myers – 2 years, $4.25 million
2015 – LB Bruce Carter – 4 years, $17 million
2015 – DT Henry Melton – 1 year, $3.75 million
2015 – FS Chris Conte – 1 year, $1.5 million
2016 – G J.R. Sweezy – 5 years, $32.5 million
2016 – DE Robert Ayers – 3 years, $19.5 million
2016 – CB Brent Grimes – 2 years, $13.5 million
2016 – P Bryan Anger – 1 year, $1.75 million
Jackson, who has spent the last three seasons in Washington after playing for Philadelphia from 2008-13, is an unrestricted free agent that has been rumored to be heading back to the Eagles, who selected him in the second round of the 2008 NFL Draft.
“Next year, being a free agent, you never know what might happen in this business,” Jackson told the Washington Post. “Who knows how things might work out? Hopefully, I’ll still be in Washington. But you never know how things work out.”
Jackson left Philly following a great 2013 season after his relationship with former Eagles head coach Chip Kelly deteriorated. With Doug Pederson, who was an offensive quality control coach (2009-10) and a quarterbacks coach (2011-12) in Philadelphia, now at the helm and calling the plays for the Eagles, Jackson has some incentive to finish his NFL career where it started. Several Eagles, including defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and defensive end Brandon Graham, will be putting the full-court press on Jackson to leave an NFC East rival and return to Philly in March.
“I’ve talked to him,” Graham told ESPN in December. “I talked to him when Doug (Pederson) got hired. We have fun during the season. He’s like, ‘B.G. you know I’ll be back, man.’ But now that it’s official, as far as the season about to be over, I think you’ll be hearing a lot of noise about DeSean. … I’m saying official as far as the end of season, now we’re going to really see.
“It’s an exciting feeling to get an Eagle back. I’m excited because he should have never left. Everybody knows that DeSean, yes, things were happening while he was here, but he’s a good guy. I used to be with him all the time.”
Free agency can be a funny thing once options open up for players who are looking for two things – money and a place to win a championship.
Carving out room for Jackson on the Eagles’ roster may prove to be difficult given their $9,845,683 in available cap space, but Philadelphia has been rumored to have several players on the trading block and perhaps the chopping block in order to create cap room and re-make the team in Pederson’s image. Jackson would love to retire as an Eagle, but he also wants to have one big, final contract, too. It’s hard to imagine him getting market value in Philly given the Eagles’ cap constraints.
And are the Eagles with second-year quarterback Carson Wentz any closer to the Super Bowl than Washington – or Tampa Bay? No.
The Redskins are flush with $59,775,921 in cap space, but will Washington be able to re-sign quarterback Kirk Cousins? And what changes will new offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh make to the ‘Skins offense since being promoted to replace Sean McVay?
Jackson recently told Larry Michael of CSN that he would like to remain in Washington.
“I want to be here,” Jackson said. “My family, my house, I have everything here. I don’t want to be in a transaction, moving.”
But with Redskins president Bruce Allen, general manager Scot McCloughan and head coach Jay Gruden on the hot seat after missing the playoffs in 2016, Jackson may want to re-think his position as there could be significant changes in Washington coming in 2018 if the ‘Skins miss the postseason for a second straight year.
Licht was with the Eagles personnel department from 2003-07, but left following the 2008 draft for a job in Arizona. Licht was part of the Eagles staff that scouted and drafted Jackson. Along with Winston – and the young quarterback’s dynamic personality – Licht may have some sway in getting Jackson interested in coming to Tampa Bay where the Bucs have $64,944,718 worth of salary cap room to use to land him.
Finishing with a 9-7 record and narrowly missing the playoffs, the Bucs will be a trendy playoff pick in 2017 – and a possible Super Bowl dark horse team. That helps Tampa Bay’s sales pitch to free agents.
The allure of playing with Winston and alongside a Pro Bowl wide receiver that will draw double-teams and free up Jackson to see single coverage may convince him to change his mind. The opportunity to play for a charismatic, offensive-minded head coach in Dirk Koetter can’t hurt the Bucs’ chances, either.
But are the Bucs open to signing a speed merchant who will be 31 years old this year? It should be noted that former Tampa Bay receiver Joey Galloway was 33 years old when he landed with the Bucs via trade and went on to have three straight 1,000-yard seasons, averaging 16 yards per catch and scoring 28 touchdowns in red and pewter from age 34-36.
When it comes to upgrading the talent at Tampa Bay’s wide receiver position, Licht told me all the cards are on the table without mentioning any names.
“I’ll just say that there’s going to be options in both free agency and the draft,” Licht said. “We’re looking at all the options and I would say that I am happy with the options that are going to be there. We have a chance to upgrade that position and that is one position that Dirk has said we need to find some playmakers at. Playmakers come in all different sizes and shapes and ages so we’ll be exploring all options.”
One of those options is Jackson. We’ll see if the Bucs make a play for a guy that is a proven big-time playmaker.