INDIANAPOLIS — This time of year, NFL coaches and general managers don’t lie. They tell beautiful stories.
They spread a little fertilizer to see if anything will grow.
That’s the only thing that makes sense after hearing that the Bucs are planning to bring back receiver DeSean Jackson.
Bucs coach Bruce Arians said two weeks ago that he sat down with Jackson, who is in the final year of his contract that will pay him $10 million in non-guaranteed salary in 2019.
“Yeah, I had a great talk with DeSean the other day and I’m really looking forward to working with him,” Arians said Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine.
Mind you, this is the same Jackson who after five games last season met with general manager Jason Licht and asked to be traded. It’s the same Jackson who, during Super Bowl week, said he would love to play for the Los Angeles Rams.
Not only had Jackson made it clear he doesn’t want to play for Tampa Bay, he doesn’t want to play with Jameis Winston.
In a way, you can’t blame him because Jackson’s game is using his rare speed to get behind the defense. But Winston has struggled to connect with him on the deep ball.
Arians even admitted Wednesday that someone like Winston could feel an inordinate amount of pressure to get the ball to a player like Jackson.
“Oh, I don’t think there’s any doubt and that’s where you get in trouble when you’re trying to force things,” Arians said. “Now there’s a way to get screens, get guys involved where there’s statistics. They caught eight balls. Six were behind the line of scrimmage but you got him involved. When you have premier guys, when you script those first 15 plays, you hopefully have them involved early. And get them going. Get their excitement level going. They’ll block a little better. They’ll do everything a little better when they know they’re a part of it. When they see those first 15 plays, the night before the game, they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s my play.’ So they’re into it.”
There have been more than a few examples when Jackson wasn’t “into it.”
Take his first season, when coaches say Jackson would fall asleep in meetings, not take notes, refused to play catch before practice with Todd Monken, then got into a physical altercation with his receivers coach/offensive coordinator.
Or how about last season when Jackson got off to a hot start under Fitzpatrick.
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In fact, 561 of his 774 receiving yards and four of his five touchdowns have come from Fitzpatrick, who has connected with him on 71 percent of his targets. Winston only completed 39.4 percent of his passes to Jackson.
When Winston missed him five out of eight times in a win over San Francisco, Jackson decided the thumb injury he played with against the 49ers would keep him out of the next three games.
Yet Arians said the more they talked two weeks ago, the more he became convinced that he can make Jackson happy in his offense. Arians said Jackson wants to be in Tampa Bay.
“That’s basically how the conversation ended,” Arians said. “Obviously, financial things and all those things come in this time of year. But as far as him having a role, me knowing what to do with him and respecting his abilities, I thought it was very positive.”
Who knows if Jackson will even show up in the offseason? He spends most of his time in California.
Arians said it is paramount that Jackson at least put in the work to learn the new offense. He even suggested he would give Jackson, 32, some Wednesdays off during the regular season.
“There’s been a couple players in that past that we’ve had that with,” Arians said. “We urge them to be there, especially the first year and then you can do what you want after you learn the system. Please come in and learn the system and give us as much time as you can.”
But Jackson has never been one to spend much time in the offseason workout program in Tampa. He does speed work with his long-time track coach in California. He produces movies. As one coach has described him, he’s a celebrity who plays football.
When you consider what the Bucs already have invested at the receiver position, it’s hard to believe they’re going to throw their money away.
Mike Evans will make $20 million this season. Chris Godwin is the team’s No. 2. Adam Humphries is a free agent and has asked for $8 million. Tight end Cameron Brate makes $7 million. Tight end O.J. Howard is a former first-round pick and Pro Bowl talent.
How much can the Bucs afford to keep Jackson?
They have three free agents that are a priority: left tackle Donovan Smith, Humphries and linebacker Kwon Alexander.
This feels like smokescreen wrapped in a half-truth designed to conceal something.
Since none of Jackson’s contract is guaranteed, the Bucs can hold onto his rights until the start of the regular season.
By then, maybe some contending team will lose a receiver to injury. Maybe they give the Bucs a fourth-round pick for Jackson.
This year is supposed to be all about Winston. The Bucs don’t want him looking over his shoulder, which is why Ryan Fitzpatrick probably won’t be invited back as the No. 2.
“Fitz did a great job, but you don’t want a split locker room,” Arians said. “I want this guy, I want this guy. Nah. We’ve got one quarterback. If you have two, you don’t have any. That’s my opinion. So he’s our guy. Hopefully No. 2 never plays.”
If Fitzpatrick being back could send Winston over the edge, what might having Jackson in his ear do?
It’s believable that Arians would know what to do with Jackson. It make sense that they would want him to participate in the offseason workouts. He’s an asset they have control of until after Labor Day. Jackson may even had heard enough about Arians’ offense to want to be a part of it.
But something isn’t adding up, like the salary cap that the Bucs would blow up by keeping a player like Jackson.
“I don’t think you can talk anybody into it. They’ve got to want to be (here),” Arians said. “And after that meeting, I thought it was extremely positive. I can’t speak for DeSean, but for me it was extremely positive and we were looking at it for the future.”
So why does it feel like somebody’s pants are on fire?