The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a young receiving corps; the average age of the 11 receivers on the roster on the eve of training camp 2012 is exactly 25 years old.
The group is a bit green, too. Not one of those 11 players was on the Bucs' roster before 2009 and only one (Sammie Stroughter) arrived before 2010. Most of those 11 have little NFL experience beyond what they've gained in Tampa.
Those numbers are about to be irrelevant, however. The youth and inexperience of the Bucs' receiving corps was a positive part of the story when it helped produce a surprising breakout for the team's passing game in 2010, with Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn becoming productive starters and Dezmon Briscoe and Preston Parker showing promise late in the year. Youth was also part of the story when the whole offense struggled significantly in 2011, an excuse the team did not try to use but was difficult for analysts to ignore.
But the Buccaneers are determined to get the offense back on track in 2011 – to fit together a very promising mix of parts into a consistently productive attack – and they're going to need their receivers to play with veteran poise and know-how. Fortunately, there is a new player in that mix who, simply by his arrival, has tipped the scales in that direction and who, since his arrival, has made an obvious impact.
He is the 11th of the 11 players on those age and experience lists, ranked in ascending order. Vincent Jackson is 29, has seven seasons in the NFL (one of them ending in a Pro Bowl selection, three of them with over 1,000 receiving yards) and has arrived in Tampa with the sort of presence that is quickly trickling down to the rest of his group.
"Work ethic, study habits, attitude, effort on the field – all those things," said Head Coach Greg Schiano, asked to note what Jackson had brought to his new team since being signed to a huge free agency contract in March. "What a true professional, what you would expect from a true professional. So that has helped a lot, especially when you have a young group of receivers."
Jackson hasn't caught a pass that counts yet, but there's little doubt that he will become a primary target, likely the primary target, for 24-year-old quarterback Josh Freeman this fall. The Bucs expected that out of their new 6-5, 230-pound big-play threat, and they expected his mere presence to open up the field for Williams, Benn and company. What they also believed when they hurried to lock him down in the first few hours of free agency, was that Jackson would help the team's younger receivers well before the regular-season games began in September.
He has not disappointed.
"I think with the years under my belt and the things I've accomplished, they look up to me for that," said Jackson of his budding relationships in the receivers' room. "I'm not a real in-your-face kind of leader but I'm going to lead by example. I'm going to go out here and work every day, and I think they see that. I'm going to take good notes, do everything right in meetings, and that just builds. As people do it, other people pick up on it."
For sure, Jackson's receiver mates have picked up on it. Williams, who is probably the leading candidate to start opposite Jackson and benefit from that defensive distraction, already has two 65-catch seasons in his two years in the NFL but feels as if he can take his game to another level. Jackson is pushing him to do so by, as Williams says, "getting all the extra work in."
"You get off the field and you watch a little film and you go home," said Williams, describing what could be a typical offseason work day for a receiver. "But that's not Vincent. You get off the field, you watch a little film…and he makes you watch a little bit more. Then you think the little bit more film is done, and he makes you watch a little bit more film. He makes you watch yourself and watch what the competitor is doing to you. That's what I've learned from him – that you need to keep evaluating yourself and evaluating other players, too."
Jackson says he is learning from his new teammates as well, and of course they are all starting at the same spot when it comes to learning the offense imported by Schiano and Offensive Coordinator Mike Sullivan. Together, they are trying to form a new culture among the receivers, one that fits in well with Schiano's emphasis on tempo and attention to detail.
"Everything we do as receivers, we carry the mentality of, 'We don't walk, we run, everywhere we go,'" said Jackson. "Even though we're just doing routes on air, walking through, you've got to get the timing going on with the quarterback – his drops, our route depth – everything kind of has to be done on the move.
"It's a new system for all of us, so we were all kind of on the same page coming in here this spring. But as guys we're developing and we're helping each other. They're sharing tips with me, there are things I can improve on. But some of these young guys, there are some things they haven't been fundamentally coached on. But we've got a great receivers coach in P.J. Fleck and obviously Mike Sullivan coming down from New York has a great system that he's putting in."
Actually, Jackson said even the newness of the situation was behind him and his fellow receivers by mid-June, when a three-day mini-camp ended the team's offseason training program. The team made great use of the somewhat limited time allowed by the new CBA this spring and summer, and Jackson believes it has his group in a great spot heading into training camp.
"We're going to be very disciplined with everything we do," said Jackson. "Technique is everything in this league and we want to be one of the best receiving corps in the league."