Jackson recalls Gruden bemoaning the fact that the Buccaneers ended up drafting Appalachian State wide receiver Dexter Jackson instead. The Bucs' pick played a total of seven NFL games in one season in Tampa; DeSean Jackson turned into one of the NFL's best big-play receivers over the next nine years (and counting).
Indeed, Jackson has made his belated return to One Buc Place after signing a lucrative multi-year contract with Tampa Bay on the first day of free agency. For the team, it feels like righting a wrong nearly a decade after getting the 'wrong Jackson.'
However, let's be clear: The Buccaneers did not pass on DeSean Jackson in order to take Dexter Jackson. After the entire first round of the '08 draft passed without a single receiver being selected – something that has happened only twice since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger – a run on the position began early in the second stanza. Receivers constituted five of the first 12 picks in the round (the best of which proved to be Jordy Nelson) and nine of the first 22. The seventh of those was the Cal product, who went to the Eagles at #49 overall.
The Buccaneers had used their first-round pick on Kansas cornerback Aqib Talib, who would become a great NFL player, albeit one who has done much of his best work after leaving Tampa. If Gruden and company wanted a receiver-slash-return man in the second round – and it certainly appears as if they did – then they weren't alone. Picking at #57, they took the other Jackson. The only way the Buccaneers could have landed DeSean Jackson was by trading up (and first deciding there was a need to trade up), and to suggest that not doing so was a foreseeable mistake is revisionist thinking.
The Buccaneers did make a bad pick in the second round in 2008. They did not make a bad decision to pass on DeSean Jackson. But you know who the team actually could have had at pick #57? Texas A&M tight end Martellus Bennett.
It was the Cowboys who grabbed Bennett, perhaps hoping to create a dangerous two-TE package alongside superstar Jason Witten. Truth be told, it took Bennett several years and a move out of Dallas before he became the ultra-productive tight end he is now, but that situation might have unfolded differently on a team that didn't already have Witten. Bennett has averaged 64 catches and five touchdowns per season since leaving Dallas.
Every team in the league could improve dozens upon dozens of their historical draft picks armed with this sort of hindsight, and the Buccaneers are no different. Below are five more picks from Tampa Bay's franchise history that didn't work out as well as hoped, and the so-much-easier-to-make-the-call-NOW potential replacement pick. In each case, we are only allowing a new selection from among the next 10 players who were chosen after the Bucs' pick. No rearranging of the picks that came earlier, and no cherry-picking from a Tom Brady-in-the-sixth-round type of situation. We're also only going to consider second and third-round picks, to keep the scenario similar to what it was in 2008.
2013: Second-round pick, CB Johnthan Banks, #43
Replacement pick: DT Kawann Short (originally #44)
The Buccaneers have made worse picks than Banks in the draft. The former Mississippi State star had two relatively promising years to start his career, opening 30 games in the 2013-14 seasons and picking off seven passes. He started only nine games the next two years, though, with no more picks, and he was released last fall before completing his rookie contract in Tampa.
This one is included not because it was the worst second-round pick the team ever made (that might be Dexter Jackson) but because of the windfall of talent that fell right after the Buccaneers' selection.
So who would we give the Bucs on a do-over at #43, choosing only from the first group (otherwise Mathieu would be awfully tempting)? Well, Bell is the biggest star but in the spring of 2013 the Buccaneers had Doug Martin coming off a brilliant rookie campaign. Another running back wouldn't have really made sense at that time. Collins likely would have fit into the defense nicely alongside another great rookie from 2012, Lavonte David, but we'll go with Short because pairing that real-life Carolina Panthers' disruptor next to Gerald McCoy is too good to pass up.
2007: Second-round pick, G Arron Sears, #35
Replacement pick: S Eric Weddle, #37
After getting good results out of early picks used on blockers in 2006 – guard Davin Joseph in the first and tackle Jeremy Trueblood in the second – the Bucs looked to continue the remaking of their offensive line in 2007. After going defense in the first round (defensive end Gaines Adams at #4 overall), they nabbed Tennessee guard Arron Sears with the third pick of the second round.
Sears was unquestionably talented, and he started 31 games over his first two seasons in the league. However, his career was quickly derailed by off-the-field personal issues and those would prove to be his only two years in the NFL. It's a sad story and, from a draft perspective, a pick that ultimately can't be considered a success.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers have been looking for a true impact player at the safety position since…well, since John Lynch's last season in Tampa in 2003. They were definitely looking during the 2007 draft, taking not one but two safeties among their first five picks. The first was a miss: Oregon State's Sabby Piscitelli, taken with the last pick of the second round. The second actually worked out for a time, as the Bucs took Syracuse cornerback Tanard Jackson in the fourth round with the intention of converting him to the back end of the secondary. Jackson started all 32 games in his first two seasons but his career was cut a bit short, too, by off-field issues.
Had the Buccaneers taken Weddle at #37, they likely would not have jumped on Piscitelli later in the round. They may very well still have taken Jackson, a player they fell in love with while coaching him at the Senior Bowl. A Weddle-Jackson combination would have been the Bucs' best safety tandem in a very long time, and even after Jackson's departure the Bucs still would have had one spot locked down back there.
2002: Third-round pick, WR Marquise Walker, #86
Replacement pick: RB Brian Westbrook, #91
Walker, a big but ultimately not very dynamic receiver from Michigan, was actually the first pick Tampa Bay made in the 2002 draft. The team's first and second-round selections had gone to Oakland in the deal to acquire the rights to Head Coach Jon Gruden. The entire 2002 draft class made virtually no impact on the team, but the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl at the end of the season, so there was little complaint.
Walker never played a down for the Buccaneers, or in fact anywhere in the NFL. He was slowed by an ankle injury in August and then, after being inactive for the first three games of the 2002 season, was placed on injured reserve with a thumb injury. The Buccaneers did manage to trade Walker to Arizona in a nifty deal that brought back running back Thomas Jones, though Jones used his bounceback season in Tampa to land a big deal with the Bears.
Westbrook and Stephens might have looked like the same type of back, but they did not produce anything close to similar results in the NFL. Westbrook developed into a two-time Pro Bowler and finished his career with more than 10,000 yards from scrimmage and 71 total touchdowns, almost all of it for the Eagles. Stephens played in one game as a rookie, caught one six-yard pass and was cut before the start of the next season, never to appear in the league again.
Again, the story ended with a Super Bowl title for the Buccaneers. Still, it would have been entertaining to see what Gruden could have done with Westbrook in his offense.
1984: Third-round pick, CB Fred Acorn, #57
Replacement pick: QB Jeff Hostetler, #59
Again, this exercise is highlighting the amazing power of hindsight. The Buccaneers made a mess of their quarterback situation in the early '80s, but it's not likely that anyone has ever before thought of Jeff Hostetler as the one that got away.
Still, if we were allowed to reshape team history, it might make a lot of sense to bring Hostetler to Tampa. The pick of Acorn, part of a talented secondary at the University of Texas, didn't work out at all. The very first pick of the third round, Acorn would last only season in Tampa and in the NFL, making a single start and picking off one pass. For a franchise that would later make a living drafting cornerbacks in the third round (Donnie Abraham, Ronde Barber, Dwight Smith), this one would be an almost complete waste.
The Buccaneers didn't have a first-round pick in 1984 because they had traded it to Cincinnati the year before to get quarterback Jack Thompson. The franchise needed Thompson (or thought it did) after letting Doug Williams walk in a contract dispute. An opportunity to pick up a new passer in the historic 1983 draft was lost thanks to an ill-advised trade in 1982 (which we will get to in the next section of this story).
Hostetler was drafted by a Giants team on the rise that already had a very good starting quarterback in Phil Simms. As such, the West Virginia product would have to wait quite a while to get an extended opportunity to start. He was actually the Giants' third quarterback for a long time behind Simms and Jeff Rutledge. That said, New York was extremely happy to have Hostetler around in 1990 when Simms suffered a foot injury in December. Hostetler started the rest of the way, winning the final two regular-season games to make the Giants 13-3 and then riding through the playoffs to a 20-19 victory over Buffalo in Super Bowl XXV.
That Super Bowl was played in Tampa, at the old Tampa Stadium in January of 1991. Had things gone a little differently, Hostetler could have started his career in Florida, and maybe gotten a lot more playing time in the 1980s. He might not have a Super Bowl ring, however.
1982: Second-round pick, DE Booker Reese, #32
Replacement pick: LB Andre Tippett, #41
To say the Buccaneers would like to have the Booker Reese pick back is an understatement. After intending to pick the raw Bethune-Cookman defender in the first round but accidentally selecting guard Sean Farrell instead, the team elected to trade its 1983 first-round pick to Chicago in order to pick up a second-round selection and belatedly make Reese a Buccaneer. As noted above, that became doubly painful when the '83 draft produced perhaps the deepest class of first-round quarterbacks in NFL history. Dan Marino went 27th overall.
Even before that missed opportunity in 1983, the Reese pick backfired as he proved to be overmatched by the NFL. His Buccaneer career would consist of 24 games, seven starts and two sacks; he would also play 11 games with the Los Angeles Rams, making no impact.
That said, losing out on a potential QB in the '83 draft might have stung a little less if the Bucs had traded for a pick to draft Iowa linebacker Andre Tippett instead. Tippett played defensive end for the Hawkeyes and was very much a pass-rusher for the Patriots, the team that drafted him and saw him put together a Hall-of-Fame career. Tippett would finish his career with exactly 100 sacks, make five Pro Bowls, earn a spot on the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 1980s and get his gold jacket in Canton in 2008.