DeSean Jackson should’ve been a Buccaneer from the very start. In fact, the Bucs did select a wide receiver named D-Jax in the second round of the 2008 draft.
But they got the wrong guy, and in some ways, it may have cost coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen their jobs. Here’s what happened.
The Bucs entered the 2008 season with a couple of glaring needs. With Ronde Barber turning 33 and Phillip Buchanon in the final year of his contract, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin needed a long-term solution at cornerback.
Aqib Talib, who had tested positive for marijuana three times at Kansas and also served a two-game suspension for violating team rules, became the Bucs’ first-round selection, No. 20 overall. We can get into Talib’s struggles in Tampa Bay later, and his ultimate trade to the New England Patriots nearly four years later, but you couldn’t deny the talent.
The other need for the Bucs was speed at the receiver position and a kick returner. Veteran Antonio Bryant had been signed as a free agent and would have a monster year. But Michael Clayton was in his decline. Joey Galloway was 37 and nearing the end of his career.
The Bucs had done a lot of work on DeSean Jackson and Gruden liked him a lot. He had him visit One Buc Place. Jackson was represented at the time by the DeBartolo Sports group located in Tampa, so he was very familiar with the team and the area.
When the second round began, the Bucs were set to select 52nd overall. Maybe because of his size – he was just under 5-10 and weighing 169 pounds at the NFL combine – or concerns about interacting with his helicopter father, Bill, DeSean Jackson was dropping. In fact, for the first time in modern draft history, no receiver was taken in the first round.
The run on receivers began immediately in the second round. Houston’s Donnie Avery went with the first pick of the second round to the Rams. Michigan State’s Devin Thomas went with the next pick to the Redskins.
The Packers traded tight end Dustin Keller to the Jets for the 36th overall pick and a fourth-rounder and selected Kansas receiver Jordy Nelson. The Bengals took Jerome Simpson from Coastal Carolina at No. 46.
DeSean Jackson was clearly the best receiver, if not the best offensive player, still left undrafted.
Had Allen listened to Gruden, or had any clue, he would’ve begun to call teams about trading up from No. 52. Instead, he was fielding calls about trading out of that spot and moving down in the second round.
Alas, DeSean Jackson went 49th overall to the Philadelphia Eagles, where he would break the club’s rookie receiving record and help his team to the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Bucs traded their pick to Jacksonville, moving down six spots to No. 58 to select Appalachian State receiver/kick returner Dexter Jackson. They also picked up the Jaguars’ 2008 fifth-round pick that they used to take tight end Kellen Davis, who they would later trade to the Chicago Bears. A seventh-rounder garnered in the deal in 2009 brought them cornerback E.J. Biggers.
The Jags used the Bucs’ pick for Auburn linebacker Quentin Groves.
Gruden has always maintained he banged the table for DeSean Jackson.
“I remember I wanted DeSean Jackson in the second round,’’ Gruden said. “We had his nameplate on our board and we got Dexter Jackson from Appalachian State. So let’s just finish right there.’’
Dexter Jackson had similar physical traits to DeSean. He was only 5-9 and 182 pounds and bared a striking facial resemblance to Kobe Bryant. But he also had small hands that made it tough for him to catch the football, and drops were commonplace during training camp.
The Bucs virtually handed Dexter Jackson the job as the team’s kickoff return man. But he routinely shied away from contact and would basically turtle any time he encountered tacklers near the 20-yard line.
Dexter Jackson played in only seven regular-season games, averaging 23.4 yards per kickoff and just 4.9 yards per punt return. He was replaced and then overshadowed by undrafted free agent rookie Clifton Smith, who averaged 27.6 yards per kick return and 14.1 yards per punt return on his way to the Pro Bowl.
Dexter Jackson would be released by the Bucs during the next training camp and picked up briefly by the Carolina Panthers, then released again, ending his NFL career.
The Bucs went 9-3 to start the 2008 season, tying Carolina for the best record in the NFC, before losing their last four games to finish 9-7 and missing the playoffs. Stunningly, both Gruden and Allen were fired on Jan. 15, 2009, with three years remaining on each of their contracts.
Nearly nine years later, the Bucs finally got their man. Now 30, DeSean Jackson is a Buccaneer and has a chance to erase a big stain on the franchise that may have begun its unraveling.