Like I had written in my Players Who Didn't Get The Franchise Tag article from Tuesday, the Chargers opted to avoid slapping wide receiver Vincent Jackson with the franchise tag for the second year in a row, allowing him to test the free agent market. Will the Chargers be able to come up with a new long-term extension before free agency starts? Will they even want to? I'm doubtful on that. After Jackson's multiple drunk-driving arrests, a three-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy and a hold out in 2010 because of a contract dispute, GM A.J. Smith might be ready to wipe his hands clean of the talented, yet slightly troublesome Jackson.
Before I go into the top 5 teams who could back up the money truck up for Jackson's services, lets take a look at his career stats:
Jackson also capped off the 2011 season with a Pro Bowl appearance as an alternate behind Patriots receiver Wes Welker. While Jackson's 2011 numbers weren't outstanding compared to guys like Calvin Johnson, the consensus around the league was that Jackson was the product of inconsistent play by Philip Rivers, who was rumored to have been dealing with an unknown injury. Nevertheless, Jackson will be a prize for any team who is desperate for a receiver. Even at 29, he still has plenty of gas left in the tank to make a five-year deal worth it.
So on that note, here are the top 5 teams who could be willing to shell out big bucks in the hopes Jackson can be the missing piece to their offense.
1. Chicago Bears - Bears fans were dancing in the streets when they had heard GM Jerry Angelo was finally fired after the Bears failed to make the playoffs and finished with an 8-8 record last season. Angelo had swung some big deals like trading for Jay Cutler and signing Julius Peppers, but he had consistently avoided upgrading the receiver position. That's going to change under Phil Emery. The Bears plan to be one of the top teams in the Jackson sweepstakes. Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune Tweeted that Jackson and Cliff Avril appeared to be the top two free agent targets. Now that Avril is back with the Lions under the franchise tag, Jackson appears to be at the top of the list. Jackson, Cutler and Matt Forte, who was also tagged, would make a strong trio in the Windy City.
2. Washington Redskins - Washington's offensive makeup is going to get an overhaul compared to Week One of last season. Washington has been, and will be, linked to every big-name receiver on the market, but NFL.com's Jason LaCanfora believes Washington and Chicago will be in a bidding war for Jackson. And if the Redskins want to trade up for quarterback Robert Griffin in the draft, giving him a big target like Jackson would make the transition easier on the rookie.
3. Buffalo Bills - The Bills just inked Stevie Johnson to a five-year, $36.25 million contract. But according to the Union-Tribune San Diego, there is belief that the Bills still have interest in Jackson. Ryan Fitzpatrick started off strong last year, but was inconsistent down the stretch. Not to mention Johnson was dealing with an aggravated groin injury. The Bills have roughly $35.4 million in cap space to use on free agents and draft picks in 2012, so they could be in the market for a pairing of Jackson and Johnson.
4. St. Louis Rams - Brandon Lloyd escaped getting tagged and will enter free agency if the Rams can't re-sign him in time. That leaves a huge hole at the receiver position....again. I give the Rams an outside shot at Jackson simply because of the need, but I believe the Rams will go through the draft instead and bring in Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon if they can swing a trade for the Redskins' No. 6 pick. But aside from the No. 1 receiver spot, the Rams could try and give themselves an extra boost on offense and at least consider trying to make a run for Jackson, but he may price himself out at a chance to be a Ram.
5. Carolina Panthers - Cam Newton gave Steve Smith his sixth 1000-yard season in 2011. But at 33, how much time does Smith have left? He'll be playing for a new contract in 2012 and there has been almost zero talk out of Carolina that the team plans on re-signing him beyond that. Even if they do, getting another weapon across from Smith has been a need for quite some time now. However, the Panthers have a big obstacle to overcome: cap space. Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel published a list of what teams had available in terms of cap space and the Panthers (as of 2/21) ranked third to last with -$5,152,579. The Panthers could easily fix that number by releasing players and restructuring contracts. But while the need for Jackson is there, there might not be enough in the cookie jar to sign him.