Pelissero: Vincent Jackson to Vikings? 'B'-level receiver more likely
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Eighteen months ago, the Minnesota Vikings so badly coveted Vincent Jackson they offered him $18 million over two years to complete a trade with the San Diego Chargers in hopes of saving their 2010 season.
Instead, Chargers general manager A.J. Smith squatted, the Vikings settled for a doomed dance with Randy Moss and Jackson ended up a co-plaintiff in last year's Brady v. NFL antitrust lawsuit, in which one judge cited the aborted trade as evidence of irreparable harm.
At 3 p.m. Tuesday, Jackson will finally become a free agent -- the best receiver available by some distance, thanks to the franchise tag that kept Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson off the market and Stevie Johnson's extension with Buffalo. The Vikings still are in dire need of an outside receiver and have some spending power, flush with more than $23 million in salary-cap space.
But Vincent Jackson, 29, is expected to have many suitors in a free-agent climate altered by the revised economic system Brady v. NFL helped create. And the Vikings are in the midst of a rebuilding process that seems unlikely to yield bidding wars for players who will be on the wrong side of age 30 before they're contending again.
That doesn't mean the Vikings can't fill one of their most glaring holes through the free agent market. In fact, the marketplace appears unusually robust with "B"-level receivers who would make solid No. 2 starters -- just not frontline players like Jackson.
"To me, that's why he's the best one that's available and will come with an expensive pricetag," an NFL personnel executive said of Jackson, who reportedly will draw strong interest from Washington, Chicago and Tampa Bay and could command as much as $12 million a season.
"You can play him inside. You can play him outside. He can catch it short, intermediate or deep. He's got very good ball skills, good hands."
Jackson also has improved as a route-runner, becoming more flexible and learning how to bend his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame in and out of breaks. He uses that size to his advantage when he needs to, going strong to the ball and tracking well down the field. He has averaged at least 15.2 yards per reception in each of his seven NFL seasons, including 18.4 yards on 60 receptions with nine touchdowns in 2011.
He's a free agent for a reason, though, at a time teams have used the reduced franchise tag -- $9.515 million, down from $11.4 million under the old formula a year ago -- to lock down the likes of DeSean Jackson, New England's Wes Welker and Kansas City's Dwayne Bowe. (Johnson would have been tagged, too, but he signed a five-year, $36.25 million extension hours before last Monday's deadline.)
For one, tagging Jackson for a second consecutive season would have cost San Diego $13.68 million (120% of his prior year's tender amount). More concerning are Jackson's age and a series of legal issues, including two drunk-driving arrests that yielded a three-game suspension to start the 2010 season he almost missed altogether in a contract dispute.
"You just want to know if you're signing him, if something like (the arrests) were to ever happen again, what are the ramifications with the league?" the executive said. "Could he possibly have to sit out time? Would he miss games? If you sign him and then his next offense happens on your watch, boy, you're going to be disappointed."
It only takes one GM to sign off on those concerns, though, and there's little doubt someone will, given there are no other true No. 1 receivers available.
Still, this isn't a one-man class -- depending what kind of receiver a team is trying to find.
"Vincent's the top guy," an NFL personnel director said. "As we stacked free agency, he was the top guy along with DeSean Jackson.
"(But) Reggie Wayne's out there. Marques Colston is out there. Pierre Garcon is out there. Mario Manningham, Brandon Lloyd -- it's a deep, deep group of wide receivers. A lot of guys that can play."
The best of that bunch probably is Colston, who has racked up 48 touchdowns and 6,240 yards on 449 receptions (13.9 average) in six seasons with New Orleans. He has an incredible catch radius and ability to muscle smaller defensive backs at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, making him dangerous on back-shoulder plays and in the red zone.
But Colston turns 29 in June, too, and he's viewed by some personnel men as a possession receiver who lacks explosive ability after the catch and does most of his damage from the inside slot, where he rarely gets rerouted in the Saints' spread offense.
"When he plays outside and he's played with press-man, he separates far less," the executive said. "That's a little more of a challenge for him if he goes to an offense where they're asking him to play exclusively on the perimeter."
Wayne, 33, is a three-time All-Pro who may be starting to decline and seems likely to follow former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning to a contender. Lloyd, 30, is entering his 10th season and has put up big numbers only once -- in 2010 with Denver, which traded him to St. Louis in October for a sixth-round draft pick.
If the Vikings target a younger receiver capable of starting and bringing a vertical element to their offense, the options probably are Manningham (6-0, 185) or Garcon (6-0, 210), both 25 and coming off their first contracts after four NFL seasons.
Manningham helped himself with 13 catches and three touchdowns during the New York Giants' run to the Super Bowl. But his hands are only good, not great, and scouts question his strength and whether he can push a route when contested with physicality.
"Garcon is a guy in this group of guys that's young, four-year guy that can flat out get down the field and make the down-the-field play," the personnel director said. "Now, he's had drops. I think that's the thing they get him on. But in terms of being able to get on top of the secondary right now, that guy can stretch the defense."
While Garcon lacks Jackson's other dominant physical traits or proven production -- he set career highs last season with 70 catches for 947 yards (13.5 average) and six touchdowns -- his age and pricetag may be far more palatable for a Vikings team with so many other holes to fill.
The question is, how high does that price tag go with nine teams reportedly at least $28 million under the cap?
Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace isn't an option because the Steelers gave him the first-round restricted tender and the Vikings aren't going to give up the No. 3 overall pick April's draft to sign him.
Other available receivers age 27 and under include Robert Meachem (New Orleans), Laurent Robinson (Dallas), Harry Douglas (Atlanta) and Josh Morgan, whom the 49ers reportedly are making a strong push to re-sign before the market opens.
"I don't know if every team is looking for that (No. 2 receiver) marketplace, but there's a number of players that can fit that bill," the executive said. "You're talking about a handful, maybe more than a handful of guys that can do that.
"If you're looking for a frontline guy, that may be more difficult to do if it's not Vincent Jackson."