It has been an odd NFL offseason for great wide receivers. Antonio Brown made it so clear that he was willing to play anywhere other than Pittsburgh that the Steelers were willing to accept just two draft picks from the Raiders in return. Odell Beckham Jr. didn’t mind playing in New York, but the Giants apparently minded him playing for them; they traded him and pass rusher Olivier Vernon to the Browns for two draft picks, a safety, and a guard. The Giants are rebuilding, ostensibly anyway, and the last thing a rebuilding team wants is a great, young player whom it had signed last August to a five-year contract.
DeSean Jackson has been a great wide receiver over his 11 years in the NFL – five seasons of 1,000 receiving yards or more, four seasons in which he led the NFL in yards per reception. He also was swept up in this offseason of change, and he might be happier with his relocation than either of his counterparts. In his mind, he went home again.
“Inside me, I still have the desire to go out there and still be great,” Jackson, drafted by the Eagles in 2008 and traded back to them this week by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said Thursday during his re-introductory press conference at the NovaCare Complex. “I still have a lot to prove. I still feel like I was a rookie, coming here signing my deal as a second-round pick, me knowing I was able to come into this league and do some great things.”
He made sure to wear a green shirt for the occasion: olive, with vertical and horizontal crease marks suggesting that he had donned it fresh from the packaging. And he did little to hide his disappointment with having been released by the Eagles (or, more accurately, by Chip Kelly) in 2014, and his longtime desire to return. He had watched them win the Super Bowl and had felt no bitterness, he said. He had recently joined a couple of his old teammates, Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, for a public event in King of Prussia, and when they pressed him about whether the Buccaneers would trade him back to the Eagles, Jackson could only shrug his shoulders and hope.
He likes and respects coach Doug Pederson: “Doug’s my guy, man.” He’s looking forward to playing with Carson Wentz: “Seeing them win the Super Bowl without him, I know he has that eager fire inside of him to get back to that destination.” Jackson’s interaction with the media Thursday was a perfectly scripted, perfectly delivered, 17-minute succession of answers.
“There might be games where I don’t get any catches; there might be games where I get a lot of catches,” he said. “Whatever it is, the story’s written for itself. I’m just excited to be a part of it.”
That will be the ultimate measure of whether this trade works out, won’t it? The situation is set up for Jackson to thrive here. He will be on a better team, with a better quarterback, than he was for any of his last five seasons – the first three with the Redskins, the last two with the Buccaneers. If he wants to win a Super Bowl, his chances are better with the Eagles and Wentz than they’ve ever been.
“I’m just ready to get back and just add to what they already have,” he said. “There’s not really much they need.”
But, with so many talented and accomplished wide receivers, there are often complications. Not always, but often enough. In some respects, this is the nature of the position and the personalities it attracts. It’s more individualized than just about any other on a football roster, and it’s relatively passive.
A wide receiver can be completely ineffective through no fault of his own. He might be open on every play, and if the quarterback can’t get him the ball, he can’t rack up those first downs, those big plays, those eye-bulging stats and the dollars that accompany them, and the frustration starts to build, both for him and the rest of his team. It happened with Brown in Pittsburgh. It happened with Beckham in New York. It happened with Jackson in Washington and Tampa, and the truest test of whether he is fitting in again with the Eagles won’t be his catching a long touchdown pass from Wentz. It will be his reaction after he has spent a game occupying the opposing safeties’ attention while Alshon Jeffery and Zach Ertz have combined for 15 receptions themselves.
“The expectation I have for myself is to come in here and just win,” Jackson said. “If you ask anybody in this building, ‘What’s the point of bringing a guy back like me?’ it’s to help this team. We’re not in it for any other reasons. Individually, hopefully there are accolades and stuff I can add on. All that stuff is great, but, at the end of the day, I want to win.”