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Bucs gamble on Jackson with division rivals in mind

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Dan Parr
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By Dan Parr

After staying out of the free-agent melee for the past few offseasons, the Buccaneers took a tremendous risk, albeit one that could pay big dividends, on the first day of free agency.

They signed former Chargers WR Vincent Jackson to a five-year deal.

Jackson, the top wide receiver to hit the open market and PFW's seventh-ranked free agent this year, cashed in with a deal worth $55.55 million (a nod to Bucs QB Josh Freeman, who wears jersey No. 5), according to reports, including $26 million guaranteed. Jackson will make $26 million in the first two years of the deal and $36 million in the first three years.

The Bucs were estimated to have about $43 million in cap space before signing Jackson, so there is still significant wiggle room to get deals done with free agents, and it appears they intend to use a lot more of the cap space before all is said and done.

OG Carl Nicks, who is looking to become the highest-paid guard in the league, is visiting Tampa, and the team could get a deal done with him next.

The PFW spin

The Bucs just devoted substantial resources to a receiver with a rare combination of size, strength and speed. Jackson has gained more than 1,000 yards in each of his last three full seasons, and he can be the vertical threat the Bucs have needed — Jackson has averaged 17.5 yards per catch in his career.

There's also a reason the Chargers did not lock up Jackson with a long-term deal despite his repeated requests for one. Jackson held out for seven games of the 2010 season to express his frustration with the Chargers for tendering him as a restricted free agent instead of giving him a multiyear deal. He played under the franchise tag in 2011, and San Diego passed on the chance to apply the tag to him for a second straight year, which would have guaranteed him a salary of $13.7 million in '12 — not far off the per-year compensation in the first two years of his new deal with the Bucs.

Chargers GM A.J. Smith set a price for Jackson's services, and he was unwilling to spend more to keep him.

Doubts have been raised about Jackson's work ethic, and he's had some very quiet games, including six last season in which he made two catches or fewer.

He's also one off-field mistake away from a lengthy suspension. Jackson is a repeat violator of the league's personal-conduct policy and was suspended for three games in 2010 for violating it after he pled guilty to driving under the influence. It was his second conviction for DUI.

Make no mistake — Jackson has the ability to change games in a way not many other receivers in the league can on their best day. GM Mark Dominik doesn't make moves without doing his homework and looking at issues from all angles. He knows that making bad calls on big deals like the one he just signed Jackson to have the potential to haunt him for the rest of his career if they don't pan out. There's no doubt he's aware of what's on the line.

He also knows the offense has to be able to pick up yards in chunks and score significant points to keep up with the likes of the Panthers, Falcons and Saints — the three division rivals Tampa Bay has to battle in the NFC South — and adding Jackson helps in that effort. Who is the Bucs' Jimmy Graham? Or Steve Smith? Or Roddy White or Julio Jones?

The fact is they didn't have one until now, and they will have a chance to add another one in the draft with the fifth overall pick, if they don't decide to address a defense that also has some big needs with their top pick.

Freeman should benefit, along with the other receivers on the team, including Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, who are not No. 1s but are a lot more likely to make big plays with defenses focusing their attention on Jackson next season.

The question of whether Jackson stays motivated and out of trouble is the concern.

This was a high-risk move for the Bucs and one that we might still be wondering about the merits of in a few years if Jackson doesn't play up to his hefty contract.

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