The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ experiment with DeSean Jackson was a failure.
It was a failure for several reasons - quarterback Jameis Winston’s inability to hit Jackson deep with any consistency, and the coaching staff’s inability to scheme more featured short quick passes to Jackson in space where he could use his run-after-the-catch skills. Jackson, even at his age, is still a dynamic, explosive receiver, a do-everything weapon; and the Bucs used him like a one-trick pony.
After acquiring Jackson in 2017 on a megadeal in free agency, the Bucs shipped Jackson back to Philadelphia following the 2018 season, swapping just sixth and seventh round picks to complete the trade. In the process they shed Jackson’s expected $10 million cap hit.
But what if the Bucs’ failures to use Jackson run deeper? What if the Bucs never should have signed Jackson in the first place; or needed to?
Drafted in the third round of the same year the Bucs signed Jackson, Chris Godwin is, or appears to be, Jackson’s heir apparent heading into the 2019 season. He’s not as fast or explosive as Jackson, but what if I told you their usage rate last season on deep balls was almost identical?
According to Football Outsiders’ new Targets Above Expectation (TAE), we can add context to a receiver’s performance and their role in the offense. Based on the data of thousands of games, we can see how often a receiver can be expected to be targeted in the passing game based on the down, distance, and route that they run. Then, you compare that baseline to a receiver’s actual target rate for those same situations. That means we can see what any particular receiver’s role in their offense really is.
One example of TAE’s usefulness is Devin Funchess, formerly of the Carolina Panthers. He had one of the best slot TAE in the league last season (4th in NFL), but the Panthers mostly used him on the outside, where he wasn’t nearly as effective (62nd). Thus, TAE can help identify inefficiencies in how team’s utilize certain players.
It’s well known that Tampa largely used Jackson on deep balls. And for corner, post, and fly/fade routes - aka the majority of deep ball routes - Jackson and Godwin had nearly identical targets above expectation.
Jackson and Godwin TAE Ranks on Deep Routes, 2018 (min. 100 routes)
Player Team TAE Rank (of 62)
DeSean Jackson TB 4.5 8th
Chris Godwin TB 4.4 9th
In short, Godwin earned deep targets at a similar rate and in a similar high-level fashion as Jackson. For whatever the reasons, Jackson’s role didn’t seem to differ that much from Godwin’s. It appears that Tampa Bay made a shrewd cost-cutting move in offloading Jackson and his salary, and that maybe the last staff with Dirk Koetter and Todd Monken intended for Godwin to replace Jackson this coming season.
But that only raises more questions. Don’t get me wrong, Godwin is a good player, but Jackson was on his own level. Why was their usage so similar, and how did Jackson not really provide anything Godwin couldn’t? Is Godwin underrated? Or did the Bucs just not get enough out of Jackson? Maybe a bit of both. Perhaps the scheme to attack downfield was well-designed but also limited Jackson to only what the scheme gave him.
Koetter and Monken were let go, and in steps offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and head coach Bruce Arians. Like Koetter, Arians is known for an aggressive downfield passing attack. But the Bucs also signed speedster Breshad Perriman in free agency, whose primary role appears to be as a deep threat. So what role will Godwin have in the new offense? The good news is that targets above expectation has some predictive qualities; receivers with a good TAE one season generally tend to do well the following season. Maybe this staff can help take Godwin’s game to a new level.