TAMPA — DeSean Jackson has a confession. He had spent so much time being 1 of 1, as his tattooed neck and practice jersey numerically confirms, that he found it hard to take a secondary role with the Bucs last season.
Because he had been the star receiver on every team he had ever played, from Long Beach Polytechnic High School to Cal-Berkeley, to the Eagles and the Redskins, being the second option behind the Bucs' Mike Evans last season was an adjustment.
"You get so comfortable and used to it being a certain way, and then you have to come in and adjust to something totally different,'' Jackson said. "I had a little tough time with that, always being the guy where I was at in the past from Philly to Washington and then to come in here and having Mike and just trying to figure out my role, what it was.
"At the end of the day, I've played with other good receivers. It's not the first time playing with a good receiver. But just feeling like I was coming to a team where he was already established and this was kind of like his team.''
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Perhaps more importantly, the Bucs didn't do a very good job of making Jackson feel like he was even a solid No. 2. The biggest number that seemed to matter was 33.5 million. That was the pile of dollars he signed for over three years.
With it came all the expectations, the pressure to perform — everything but the football. Quarterback Jameis Winston never developed a dependable connection with Jackson. Thirty-seven of Jackson's 50 receptions last season went for less than his 17.7-yard career average. In fact, he ranked third on the team in catches behind Evans (71) and Adam Humphries (61), who played primarily on third down.
Jackson's combination of confidence and candor has always made him an easy target for criticism when things aren't going well. He also admits he didn't always handle the Bucs' slow start very well.
"I was frustrated before the end of the year with the way we started,'' Jackson said. "But I was just trying to stick with it as best as possible. We're all human. We're not perfect. But I had to just, you know, have a learning curve last year even in my 10th year in the NFL.''
Bucs coach Dirk Koetter has said that Jackson's lack of production wasn't always because he didn't hold up his end of the bargain. Jackson won enough routes and consistently got behind the defense, only to see too many passes sail over his head or bounce at his feet.
"Missing those deep balls last year, not really being able to connect with those guys, obviously your first year is an adjustment,'' Jackson said. "You never know how it's going to go. But now in year two, like I was telling the quarterbacks, we can't accept all that stuff we went through last year. This is the year we got to get it. We missed it so much last year, it's like it's now or never. So we all have a sense of urgency to go out and get our game to the next level. So far in camp, it's been great. They've been able to get me some deep balls.''
The Bucs are hoping Saturday's 30-14 preseason win over the Titans is a harbinger of things to come. In the second quarter with the Bucs pinned on their own 10-yard line, Jackson ran past Titans cornerback LeShaun Sims and made an over-the-shoulder catch of a perfectly thrown deep ball by Winston for a 54-yard gain. That sparked a 90-yard TD drive. Jackson also had a 19-yard catch and run in the game.
With a simple hand signal, Jackson said quarterbacks are more willing to audible to plays to get him the football.
"All I can really say is there's been a lot of work put in,'' Jackson said. "Obviously, I missed a lot of time here in the offseason. That just goes to me feeling comfortable and keeping my speed and being able to still work with my track coach (in California) But I feel it was important for me to keep my speed and put in that work so now when able to come back here, that timing is still there.
"I think this year will totally be different, and I feel it throughout the whole team. Not only for myself. I think everybody has come out with a sense of urgency. We understand 5-11 isn't okay.''
Jackson also seems willing to find other ways to get the football in his hands, like returning punts. None of his four punt returns for touchdowns have come since 2010. In fact, he's only attempted three punt returns in the past four years.
But on Tuesday, Jackson posted a video on Instagram of him returning a punt for a touchdown with the Eagles against the Redskins, prompting him to write, "We bringing bac that wave this year!! Let's go."
By all accounts, Jackson has had a great training camp and preseason. He's also taken on more of a leadership role, according to Koetter.
"I give DeSean credit for the way he's come out here and worked and set the tone for some of the younger guys," Koetter said. "He doesn't have to set it for Mike and (Adam) Humphries and Chris (Godwin). But he's done a really good job in camp, and I think that more than anything else, DeSean has come and put his best foot forward every day.''
Players still gravitate to Jackson because of his credentials and off-field persona. His L.A. roots have morphed into Hollywood fame as an entrepreneur and producer of All Eyez on Me, the biopic on hip hop artist Tupac Shakur that grossed more than $54-million worldwide.
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"It comes down to credibility and guys respecting me for being in this game for so long and having the career that I've had,'' Jackson said. "I just want to get back to lighting it up, man, and being that special guy I know I can be. As long as I can get my opportunities and have a connection. If you think about it, if we had really connected last year, the conversation would be entirely different.''
If Jackson returns to the playmaker he was before joining the Bucs, could that be the difference? Jackson thinks so, even if he isn't the No. 1 option.
"I'm cool with it,'' Jackson said. "You know what I'm saying? I'm a little older in my career, and I've accepted that. Still, like, you pay me, I want to go out and earn my paycheck and go out and make plays. And not just earning my paycheck, I still love to play this game, and I want to be able to make an impact. I feel like my impact will be way larger if I'm able to do what I can do.''