TAMPA — As the Jets come to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins said he is a different person than the one cut by the Bucs 14 months ago after his off-field issues peaked with a DUI arrest.
"It’s really cool to come back to Tampa, doing things the way I’m doing things right now," he said Wednesday during a phone interview in which he talked about past problems with alcohol and leading the Jets with 33 receptions.
"When they let me go, I don’t think they thought I could be this. I still have a lot more to improve. You’re getting better every week, and it feels really good. That’s an awesome feeling. You’re playing against a team that gave up on you."
The Bucs drafted him in the second round in 2014 despite a DUI in 2013 when he was at Washington. Seferian-Jenkins, 25, said he understands why the Tampa Bay released him.
A series of on- and off-field problems culminated in September 2016 with his DUI arrest. At 3:42 a.m. two days before a game, he was accused of speeding and driving erratically, with viral dash-cam video of his arrest.
By the afternoon, he had been waived.
"Obviously I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain as a professional," Seferian-Jenkins said. "I don’t blame them for everything. I want to make that clear. There are things I should have done better, things I could have done better and it would have never gotten to that point."
Seferian-Jenkins has resolved his legal issues in Tampa, agreeing to a lesser misdemeanor charge of reckless driving, completing court-ordered probation, community service and counseling. The NFL suspended him for the first two games this season as punishment for the 2016 arrest.
He never caught more than 21 passes in any of his three seasons with the Bucs. His first career touchdown, for a fourth-quarter lead against Minnesota, was offset by his fumble on the first play of overtime, returned for a touchdown and a Vikings win.
His next touchdown, again for a fourth-quarter lead against Atlanta, saw him pose like Captain Morgan in the end zone, resulting in a 15-yard celebration penalty that helped set up the Falcons for their go-ahead touchdown drive.
"It doesn’t take away the seven points," he said in the locker room after what Lovie Smith called a "rookie mistake."
In June 2016, coach Dirk Koetter publicly sent him off the practice field, saying he "didn’t know what he was doing." Seferian-Jenkins tweeted "MOVING ON!" from the locker room before practice had even ended.
In the 2016 preseason finale, when established players typically don’t even play, Seferian-Jenkins had to play 56 snaps, with only two catches for 22 yards from seven passes thrown his way. His release set up the emergence of Cameron Brate, who tied for the NFL lead among tight ends with eight touchdowns last year.
The Bucs used their first-round pick this year on tight end O.J. Howard, a talented player they didn’t expect to be available. Had Seferian-Jenkins still been with the team, they might have addressed a different position of need.
"I take part of the blame for stuff that went on, but some of the stuff I won’t," Seferian-Jenkins said Wednesday. "I think most people could have handled things differently. … That’s in the past. I don’t hold grudges. I wish I would have done things differently. Both parties have moved on, and everything worked out for both sides."
Seferian-Jenkins has been candid about his past problems with alcohol, and his personal success on the field has come with improved team play for the Jets, who went 5-11 last year but are now 4-5.
"The biggest thing was his off-field issues that he took control of as a person, to own up to what he was doing and seek help for it," Jets coach Todd Bowles said. "He came back a different person. He’s constantly working on himself, which helped him on the field. He started eating right and he’s dropped some weight. He made a commitment to be a better person and a better player, and that’s all he’s shown us thus far."
Seferian-Jenkins weighed as much as 285 pounds last year and is now at 258. He said he’s looking forward to seeing friends and former teammates in Tampa, especially the tight ends he worked with. They, too, are happy to see his progress.
"When he was here, the talent, you couldn’t deny it. You knew he had tons of talent," Bucs reserve tight end Luke Stocker said. "You saw him make some not-the-best decisions, not the best judgment, but you knew that if he could ever got over that hump, he would start to do well. It looks like he’s done that. He’s taken accountability for things in his personal life he wanted to get straight, and he finally did that and it’s translated to the field. You start to see consistency in his play."
The Bucs have staff specifically dedicated to players’ off-field needs and development. Seferian-Jenkins said he has a better support structure with the Jets.
"I was lucky enough to land with the New York Jets, who really invested in me as a person, and they’re reaping the benefits," he said. "I’ve been named team captain in a couple of games and I don’t think anyone in Tampa would have ever thought that was possible."
Seferian-Jenkins admits his time in Tampa was "the worst period of my life" but said he still has fond memories of playing there, of "amazing times with amazing friends." He’ll be a free agent next spring and could be in position to land a larger contract than his four-year, $5.25 million rookie deal.
"It’s changed my life and really changed my career," Seferian-Jenkins said of his past year. "I took the risk of falling on my face, and things worked out. (The Jets) pushed me. I didn’t do this alone. They were with me and supported me the whole way. … They knew what they got when they signed me."
Contact Greg Auman at email@example.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.