The first thing that popped into Vincent Jackson's mind when he ran across his new quarterback, Josh Freeman, in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' dining room last Wednesday was hoops. Both players are 6-5 and 230 pounds or more, and both know their way around a basketball court. Jackson thought they had the makings of a pretty good starting five.
Emphasis there is on the "five."
Jackson, the most coveted receiver on the market, was the Buccaneers' first-day free agency coup a week ago, and he was quickly joined by All-Pro guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright. Introduced together on Wednesday, those three immediately started fielding jokes about the Big Three the Miami Heat signed in rapid succession two summers ago. But even James and company know they can't win any titles in South Beach alone.
Freeman is understandably excited about his new teammates. On Tuesday, he told NFL Radio on SiriusXM that he felt like it was Christmas and he couldn't wait to go outside and play with his new toys. But Freeman also understands that the addition of Jackson, in particular, in particular is only going to make the toys he already has in the Buccaneers' passing game more exciting.
Over his last four seasons combined in San Diego, Jackson averaged 18.0 yards per reception, fourth among all NFL players during that span and first among all players with at least 300 catches. Just last year, his mark was 18.4. That's a brand new element for the Buccaneers' offense, and it's going to lead to a lot more than a bunch of bombs heaved in Jackson's direction.
"Vincent's got great speed and he makes it really tough for defenses to single him up, really tough for teams to play him man-to-man because he's such a big, physical presence," said Freeman during his NFL Radio appearance. "I think we'll catch a lot more zone, but at the same time it's going to open up the windows. If you're double-teaming and taking away number one, there's not going to be a whole lot left over."
Jackson puts opposing defenses into the classic pick-your-poison scenario, and if they pick Jackson too exclusively, Freeman thinks it will mean big things for the team's group of promising third-year wideouts – Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, Dezmon Briscoe and Preston Parker. Freeman also clearly likes throwing the ball in the direction of tight end Kellen Winslow, and presumably he'll be able to do so without forcing the issue, as seemed to be the case at times in 2011.
"It's going to be pure matchups on the backside," said the fourth-year passer. "When you get to that point, I think it favors the offense. I think he's going to open up a lot of windows for guys like Mike, like Arrelious, Briscoe, Preston Parker and also Kellen Winslow to have a lot of opportunities to step up and make plays this year."
The Buccaneers' receiver cupboard was getting a little bare by the end of the 2009 season, with Joey Galloway gone, Antonio Bryant unable to overcome leg injuries and Michael Clayton's Tampa tenure winding down. The team addressed the issue in (and after) the 2010 draft, picking Benn in the second round and Williams in the fourth and later signing Parker and Briscoe of the same rookie class. Williams was an immediate hit in 2010, breaking the team record with 11 touchdown catches, and Benn came on strong as a second option later in the season.
Briscoe and Parker grew into bigger roles in 2011 but Williams had a tougher go of it with defenses constantly focusing on him and Benn produced at roughly the same level as the year before. The Buccaneers' offense as a whole took a step back after a heady breakout year in 2010, but Freeman still believes his young corps of wideouts can produce at a high level, especially with their new teammate now in the fold.
"He still had a productive year," said Freeman of Williams. "I know his touchdowns were down, but Mike is going to complement Vincent very well. Mike was the guy they were rolling the coverage to last year, so what is he going to do when you have two guys out there making plays?
"Preston Parker stepped up and had some big games, but his best years are ahead of him. All of these guys, I feel really confident with my guys. I spent some time with Arrelious Benn over the week, and this guy's been working his butt off. He's going to be ready to go. Really, it's going to be a matter of whoever the coverage dictates is going to get the ball and I know all these guys are capable of making big plays."
Though the Bucs can't start any organized workouts as a team until April, Freeman has been working hard on his own and he's seen the same thing from a lot of his teammates. The 2011 season was tough to swallow, but the players have moved on with renewed optimism. The franchise's aggressive dip into free agency obviously helped with the positive feelings.
"Nobody has time to sit around, sulk and be upset about things," said Freeman. "You've got to take it in stride and you have to continue to push forward. I know everybody's really excited to have the opportunity to come back and start this thing over, a new beginning of sorts. We've made some changes, added some new faces, but I'd say the core nucleus of this team is ready to go and put some serious work in and compete."
Part of Freeman's offseason approach has been reworking his frame, as he aims to play at 240 pounds after going as high as 260 at times over his first three years. That might hurt his chances to play center on Jackson's basketball team, but Freeman is focusing on adding lower-body power. He is also absorbing the difficult lessons from 2011 and figuring out how his mental approach has to change to get him back on the fast track he established in 2010.
Part of that, he concedes, is recognizing moments in which he may have become overconfident. After his fantastic 2010 season, he felt he had a strong 2011 offseason as well and that led him to try too hard to single-handedly resolve the problems that cropped up that season.
"I feel like, especially after we got a couple losses, I felt like I've got to do something, I've got to do something to make a play," he said. "Almost that confidence from all that work you've put in maybe goes a little too far. I really think that's something that happened. I know what coverage they're going to be in – I can make this throw, I can make this play. But it was kind of outside my character, outside of what we needed to do within the offense to be successful and it ended up coming back to bite us, and me personally."
By his own rationale, there are going to be more options in the passing game in 2012 anyway, which should reduce the urge to force a big play. Jackson, who stressed in his introductory press conference that he intends to do much more than run a series of fly patterns, should make plays all over the field, adding stress to the decision-makers on opposing defenses. Freeman expects to have fun over the next few months figuring out just what his newest toy can do.
"All I want from Vincent is that he's going to come out and give it all he's got," said Freeman. "I know this guy's going to be huge for us. He's a tremendous athlete, a physical specimen. He's a guy that has lofty goals, lofty expectations not only for himself but also what he wants to see us become. I'm really excited to have the opportunity to work with him."