A year ago, DeSean Jackson was the missing piece of the Bucs offense.

A pure deep threat. A playmaker who could take the top off a defense.

Now, he’s no longer the piece. He’s a piece.

The Bucs recently signed Mike Evans and Cameron Brate to contract extensions. Chris Godwin and O.J. Howard, rookies last season, figure to see a greater share of targets going forward.

Where does that leave Jackson?

He won’t be a Buccaneer much longer. His release is a matter of when, not if.

That day might not be imminent, but it’s coming. Just follow the money.

As part of the three-year, $33.5 million contract Jackson signed last year, he is due $11 million this season, $7.5 million of which is guaranteed. He is due $10 million next season, none of which is guaranteed. So if the Bucs, hypothetically, were to release him today, they would free up $3.5 million this season but would incur a $7.5 million dead cap charge.

What do you care what Jackson’s getting paid? It’s not your money, right?

The more money a team puts into one position, the less they have to put into other positions. The Bucs are allocating an NFL-high $35.2 million in cap space to their eight receivers this season. The Cowboys are allocating $33.9 million, but no one else is particularly close. The league average is $20.9 million.

At the moment, the Bucs aren’t making sacrifices elsewhere to accommodate Jackson’s contract, but they could be soon. They currently have about $10 million in cap space. That will be enough to cover the salaries of the players they draft later this month, but they’ll be bumping up against the cap.

Although the cap likely will increase next year by another $10 million or so, that space will go quickly. Lavonte David’s cap charge will increase by $1 million, Vinny Curry’s by $1.5 million, Mike Evans’ by $1.7 million and Jason Pierre-Paul’s by $2 million. The Bucs also might want to give contract extensions to Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet and Kwon Alexander.

The biggest hit to their cap situation in 2019 will be Jameis Winston’s raise. Assuming the Bucs pick up the fifth-year option on his contract — a virtual lock — his cap charge will jump from $8 million to more than $20 million.

Simply put: It doesn’t look as if there will be enough room to pay Jackson $10 million next season. That was never really the plan anyway.

As for this coming season, it doesn’t make much sense for the Bucs to move on, at least from an on-the-field standpoint. Granted, 2017 wasn’t a typical DeSean Jackson season. He caught fewer passes, gained fewer yards and scored fewer touchdowns than he did in 2016.

Don’t confuse that apparent lack of production with a decline in skill. In many ways, Jackson was the same receiver.

In 2016, he reached a peak speed of 22.6 mph on a 59-yard catch. In 2017, he reached a peak speed of 20.5 mph on a 41-yard catch.

In 2016, defenses gave him an average cushion of 7.4 yards. In 2017, they still respected his speed, giving him 7.2 yards.

In 2016, he gained an average of 2.9 yards of separation from the nearest defender. In 2017, he gained 2.7 yards.

He’s as fast and dangerous as ever. So why the drop in catches, yards and touchdowns?

“DeSean was where he was supposed to be,” coach Dirk Koetter said recently. “He was either behind the defense, in between the corner and safety, or he was in position to make explosive plays, and we didn’t get the ball to him. That’s on myself, it’s on Jameis to do better. I think DeSean and Jameis have said they need to spend more time working together, and I think they’re addressing that.”

Koetter has been consistent on this point.

“If you just had an (isolation) camera on DeSean Jackson when he was on the field this year, DeSean Jackson wins most of the time,” Koetter said after the season. “When he is trying to get behind the defense, he can get behind the defense. We did not do a good job of getting him the ball in positions that he is used to getting it, which is over the top.”

On game days, Jackson did what the Bucs signed him to do. Go beyond the traditional measures and you’ll see that he can still be a difference maker. Here are a handful of film clips to prove it.

Week 3 vs. Vikings, 5:37 left in second quarter, first and 10, ball on Tampa Bay 14

[NFL Game Pass]

On this play, the Bucs attack the Vikings’ soft zone coverage. Jackson, lined up on the far right of the formation, runs a corner route between cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Andrew Sendejo. Waynes, also aware of the flat route underneath, fails to get deep enough to cover Jackson. Winston delivers an A-plus throw that allows Jackson to gain a handful of yards after the catch. The Bucs pick up 32 yards.

Week 3 vs. Vikings, 4:02 left in second quarter, first and 10, ball on Minnesota 34

[NFL Game Pass]

Given the options of Mike Evans against Xavier Rhodes or Jackson against Waynes, the Bucs rightly choose to attack Waynes. Jackson is able to get behind Waynes here, but Winston’s pass is a poor one. If Winston throws the ball deeper and farther out in front of Jackson, Jackson might be able to make a play. Instead, Waynes picks it off.

Week 4 vs. Giants, 4:09 left in third quarter, second and 10, ball on Tampa Bay 20

[NFL Game Pass]

Jackson flies by cornerback Eli Apple and safety Landon Collins, but Winston overthrows him and the Bucs just miss on an 80-yard touchdown pass.

Week 5 vs. Patriots, 2:35 left in second quarter, third and 9, ball on Tampa Bay 26

[NFL Game Pass]

You could blame some of Winston and Jackson’s missed connections early in the season on a lack of chemistry. But not this one. This is just a flat out ugly throw. Jackson has a step on cornerback Malcolm Butler down the left sideline, but Winston’s pass hangs in the air too long, allowing safety Duron Harmon close in and nearly come up with the interception.

Week 5 vs. Patriots, 13:38 left in third quarter, third and 3, ball on Tampa Bay 32

[NFL Game Pass]

At the snap, Butler doesn’t give Jackson much cushion. Jackson exploits this with a stutter step that momentarily freezes Butler. Jackson is about as wide open as it gets in the NFL, but Winston overthrows him again. Instead of a go-ahead 68-yard touchdown to open the second half, the Bucs punt.

Week 7 vs. Bills, 4:00 left in third quarter, first and 10, ball on Buffalo 46

[NFL Game Pass]

Jackson, lined up in the slot, leaves cornerback Shareece Wright in the dust and is wide open as he crosses over the middle. Winston’s throw, though, is just out of reach. The Bucs, down 17-13, miss another chance at a game-changing score.

Week 9 vs. Saints, 1:42 left in first quarter, first and 10, ball on Tampa Bay 47

[NFL Game Pass]

Saints cornerback Ken Crawley bites on Jackson’s double move, but Winston’s throw drifts too far toward the sideline. Jackson catches it but not with both feet in bounds. Including the incompletions against the Giants and Patriots, that’s at least three missed touchdown opportunities.

Week 14 vs. Lions, 7:34 left in first quarter, second and 4, ball on Tampa Bay 31

[NFL Game Pass]

Make it four missed touchdown opportunities. Here, Jackson, lined up on the far right, quickly gets behind the defense over the middle. A blitzing Lions linebacker, however, disrupts Winston’s timing and forces him to throw the ball early. He overthrows Jackson once more.

Contract figures in this report are from Over the Cap and Spotrac. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.