Brett Favre, Peyton Manning ... every NFL offseason has at least one drama as its feature attraction. Sitting right below those names on the marquee is the annual tango between Vincent Jackson and the San Diego Chargers, the offseason's well-attended matinee.
The Chargers plucked Jackson off Colorado's high plains in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft. He was mostly invisible during his first two seasons in San Diego, a victim of MartyBall. Norv Turner took over as head coach in 2007, the same year that Jackson started all 16 games for the first time in his career.
Jackson was still third on the team in receptions, behind LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates, but work as the team's top vertical threat portended bigger things in his future. Jackson broke the 1,000-yard barrier in 2008, a breakout year even by the standards of today's finicky stats-focused fans. In January 2009, he picked up his second DUI.
He had another big year, his biggest, in 2009, and it set the stage for his annual dalliances with A.J. Smith and the Chargers' front office. NFL commissioner and morality czar Roger Goodell slapped Jackson with a three-game suspension to start the 2010 season, but that was a footnote to Jackson's 2010 season.
The Chargers tendered Jackson a restricted free agent offer worth $3.268 million, the highest tender available but far from the $10+ million per year that the game's top receivers make. The combination of the RFA tender and no long-term deal offer from the Chargers did not sit well with Jackson, who vowed to sit out the entire season if necessary.
From the Chargers' perspective, they were reluctant to ink Jackson to a new deal given his off-field troubles and being one incident away from Goodell's gulag.
Over the summer of 2010, San Diego slashed its tender to less than a million. Jackson continued to hold out. The drama continued as both Jackson and A.J. Smith dug in their heels, refusing to budge. Several teams made an effort to swing a deal for Jackson that fall, but ultimately balked at the team's impossible asking price.
When it was all said and done, Jackson played a total of five games that season.
There was more drama in 2011, when the lapsed CBA made him a restricted free agent for the second year in a row. San Diego applied the franchise tag to Jackson prior to the lockout. During the negotiations he was reportedly demanding a cash settlement if he was not allowed to become a restricted free agent. He dropped those demands and played under the franchise tag last season.
This year Jackson could finally get his shot at free agency ... maybe.
The Case For Staying In San Diego
San Diego could use the franchise tag on Jackson again this season.
Fortunately for Jackson, and other teams needing a receiver, the Chargers have indicated that they are unlikely to tag Jackson, according to the San Diego Union Tribune. Such a move would cost the Chargers over $13 million, and they have many, many other needs to fill in order to build Norv Turner's last-chance 2012 team. It's that perceived desperation from the Chargers that makes you wonder if they really would slap the tag on him again.
The Chargers have said that they will indeed try to re-sign Jackson. There will be no hometown discount offered by a man twice-offended by owner-friendly provisions in the CBA.
Jackson will be the top free agent receiver available this year, in a river well-stocked with talent.
During his 2010 squabbles, he was reportedly asking for a five-year, $50 million deal with $30 million guaranteed. His agent later denied that, but did say that his price tag would be on par with the league's top receivers.
A five-year, $50 million deal is a very real possibility for the 29-year old coming off his third 1,000-yard season in four years.
Plenty of teams could use a receiver like Jackson.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have ample cap space and have acknowledged a busy free agent period as they start down a new path.
Washington needs help at receiver and has never been shy about spending money.
Jacksonville, under new leadership, could use a receiver to help their offense. It would also be a help for second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
The market for free agent receivers will be paced by Jackson, so expect little movement until he signs a deal. And it should be the biggest deal signed by a receiver in free agency. At the end of the day, the 49ers or Rams make a lot of sense.