TAMPA — 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 might 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 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, but you couldn't deny the talent.
The other need for the Bucs was speed at receiver and a kick returner. Veteran Antonio Bryant had been signed as a free agent and would have a monster year in 2008. But Michael Clayton was in decline. Joey Galloway was 37 and nearing the end.
The Bucs had done a lot of research on DeSean Jackson, a two-time All-American at California, and Gruden liked him a lot. He had him visit One Buc Place. Jackson was represented by the DeBartolo Sports group located in Tampa, so he was 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 weighed 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 after none were taken in the first round. Houston's Donnie Avery went with the first pick of the second round to the Rams. Michigan State's Devin Thomas went next to Washington.
The Packers traded Purdue tight end Dustin Keller, the 30th overall pick, 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.
Jackson was clearly the best receiver, if not the best offensive player, still 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.
Jackson went 49th overall to Philadelphia, where he would break the club's rookie receiving record and help his team to the playoffs.
The Bucs then traded their pick to Jacksonville, moving down six spots to No. 58 to select Division I-AA 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, whom they later traded to Chicago. A 2009 seventh-rounder garnered in the deal brought them cornerback E.J. Biggers.
The Jags used the Bucs' pick for Auburn linebacker Quentin Groves.
Gruden always has maintained he banged the table for DeSean Jackson.
"I remember I wanted DeSean Jackson in the second round,'' Gruden would later say. "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 bore a striking facial resemblance to Kobe Bryant. But he also had small hands that made it tough for him to catch the football, and his drops were commonplace during training camp.
The Bucs virtually handed Dexter Jackson the job as the team's kickoff returner. 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, then overshadowed by undrafted free agent rookie Clifton Smith, who averaged 27.6 yards (kickoffs) and 14.1 yards (punts) 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 Carolina, 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, each with three years remaining on 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 might have begun its unraveling.
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected]. Follow @NFLStroud.