Once the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took stock of a season in which they finished 9-7 and won six of their last eight games but missed the playoffs for the ninth straight season, one thing became abundantly clear. The offense desperately needed a deep receiver to take the top off enemy defenses if the franchise was to compete with the NFC's best in 2017.
In 2016, only Mike Evans caught more than two passes thrown to him over 20 yards in the air (13 catches on 39 targets for 372 yards and six touchdowns), which spoke as much to Evans' skill as a red-zone target who can box his way out of coverage in short spaces than any pure burning speed in a straight line.
More often than not, Tampa Bay's deep passing strategy last season went something like this: Throw it up in Evans' direction and let him win the physical battle. It's a strategy that worked a lot of the time, but the lack of a receiver who could win with speed and short-area spatial awareness was glaring. It allowed defenses to play the Buccaneers hard to the intermediate areas, and opponents didn't have to account for a paucity of talent that could force double and bracket coverage to the other side of Evans.
That showed in the performance of Jameis Winston more than anyone else. In 2016, Winston tied for eighth in the league with 69 attempts of 20 air yards or more, completing just 22 of those passes for 646 yards, 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. Winston struggled at times with his deep accuracy, but he also didn't have a lot of openings on those throws. Unless he was throwing to Evans, he had to be note-perfect, and that's a very tough order for a second-year NFL quarterback.
Head coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht used free agency the way it's supposed to be used at the big-ticket level—you take your most glaring need, and you fill that hole with the best, most obviously gifted player on the market. In signing former Eagles and Redskins receiver DeSean Jackson to a three-year, $33.5 million contract with $20 million guaranteed last week, the Buccaneers did just that.
In 2016, only T.Y. Hilton of the Colts had more receptions of passes at least 20 yards in the air than Jackson's 16 for 579 yards and three touchdowns. Last season, as noted by Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times, the Buccaneers had no passing plays of 50 yards or more—the only NFL team for which that was true. Jackson had four such plays for the Redskins. It's easy to see why this deal was so important for the team.
"Your percentage of scoring touchdowns is going to go way, way up the more explosive plays you have," Koetter told Scott Smith of the Buccaneers' website in February 2015, just after he'd been hired as the team's offensive coordinator. "It's one thing to say you're going to beat down the defense, but you can make explosives in your run game, you can have explosives in your pass game. We've got to create explosives."
With Jackson on board, here come the explosives. Winston threw 28 touchdown passes last season, tying him with Derek Carr and Tom Brady, but if you were to get him closer to the 38 touchdowns thrown by Matt Ryan of the Falcons in the regular season, you might be able to see a different top kick in the NFC South in 2017. That's why the Bucs brought Jackson in—creating explosive plays is natural for him.
This 59-yard pass from Kirk Cousins to Jackson in Week 13 against the Cardinals shows what a matchup nightmare Jackson is and how you have to structure your defense around him.
Washington has a 3x1 set to the right with Jackson in the middle, covered by safety Tyvon Branch (27). Branch is more a run-stopper than a coverage player, but the Cardinals didn't adjust to that. They could have moved cornerback Patrick Peterson (21) into the slot, but Peterson stayed outside on Pierre Garcon (88). They could have bracketed Jackson with safety D.J. Swearinger (36), who was up top, but Swearinger took receiver Jamison Crowder (80) up the middle.
The result: A safety who had just been activated off injured reserve covered the best deep receiver in the game. Branch, who had been tasked to take Tyrann Mathieu's role as the deep slot defender while Mathieu was injured, had no shot.
Jackson was the primary reason Kirk Cousins—never a great deep-ball thrower at Michigan State—was able to complete 39 passes of 20 air yards or more last season for 1,359 yards, 11 touchdowns and three picks. Those 39 deep completions tied Cousins with Andrew Luck for the league lead. In addition, Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay (now the Rams' head coach) was brilliant in devising schemes that left designed openings where Cousins could wait behind excellent protection and drop the ball where he needed to.
Jameis Winston has more and better physical tools than Cousins. He throws an easy deep ball with good velocity. In fact, his physical attributes have allowed a few bad habits to rise up.
Watching Winston throw deep can be an exercise in frustration—for every on-point downfield throw, there's another in which his feet aren't working well for optimal mechanics, or he's running around and not squaring to the target before he throws. There's an element of randomness to Winston's game that has stopped Tampa Bay's offense from being as consistent as Koetter would like it to be.
Unlike Cousins, Winston doesn't have to be mechanically perfect to heave the ball downfield. Quarterbacks with great arms can take longer to fill in the little things that promote consistency.
Still, there are times when you can see Winston's deep ball working, superimpose Jackson onto the field and wonder just how good the Buccaneers passing game will be.
This 38-yard pass to tight end Cameron Brate in Week 5 against the Panthers is an interesting example of Koetter's passing concepts. Here, he's got receiver Russell Shepard (89) on a deep over route from left to right, and Brate (84) emerges from the blocking on the left side in a three-tight end set to run outside the numbers. Winston does a good job of clearing the pocket, running boot-action to his right (a common construct in Koetter's offense), and he's got all day to make the throw. It's a play that takes a lot of time, and it gains 38 yards.
The 3TE grouping screams run, which gets the Carolina defenders up close and reading that way. The combination of play action and Brate's blocking to start the play further disguises the intention of a deep pass to the tight end. Winston sells the fake well, and Shepard's deep cross takes the intermediate coverage to the other side of the field. He might be a read here under different circumstances, but in this case he clears the way for the backside route.
Now, imagine if DeSean Jackson is affecting at least one of the safeties on multiple deep routes, and it's literally a whole new ballgame. You start to see how he's ready-made for what this offense is supposed to be.
"Most of your deep routes are layered routes—you've got somebody going deep, somebody in the intermediate zone and somebody in the checkdown zone," Koetter said last Saturday, via the team's official website. "It gets to a point where, if the defense doesn't have to honor that guy going over the top, they sit down more on your lower-level guys. Now, we're not always going to have DeSean doing that. DeSean can do everything, and Mike's a guy that can get behind the defense as well. This just gives us a lot more flexibility.
"There are a handful of receivers in the league that, when you watch on tape, defenses give those guys respect just because of their speed. DeSean's definitely in the upper echelon of those guys."
The defending NFC champion Falcons are still the team to beat in the NFC South, but adding Jackson to a Bucs offense that is already coming together in a lot of ways makes things more interesting in the division. If Winston and Jackson can create a consistently compelling duo, that may be enough to flip the script.
Advanced statistics via Pro Football Focus.