The enigmatic Vincent Jackson is scheduled to become a free agent on March 13. He is a man of great skill, and a man lacking great judgement. On one hand, he has had two DUIs, got pulled over for driving with a suspended license on his way to a playoff game, got a personal foul for kicking a flag during that same playoff game and held out for most of a season. On the other hand, he's the guy that's had three 1,000 yard receiving seasons, has twice ranked in the top 2 in DVOA, averages 17.5 yards every time he catches the ball, has missed only 1 game due to injury since he became a full-time starter and had an unforgettable game-winning touchdown against the New York Giants in 2009. He's been volatile in the past and he's been valuable on the field.
The Chargers currently have 15 unrestricted free agents including Vincent Jackson, 4 other starters and a Special Teams captain. The team has also already committed big-money, multi-year contracts to players like Antonio Gates, Philip Rivers, Kris Dielman, Eric Weddle, Luis Castillo and Marcus McNeill. They also may be considering trying to lure some free agents like Mario Williams, Tyvon Branch or Carl Nicks to San Diego for some serious cash. So, even with a player who provides as much value as Vincent Jackson there is a question as to how much money is there to go around. Recently, Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union Tribune wrote an article about the Chargers and their cap situation. He estimated that the team could free up close to $30 million in cap space by releasing some players. You could easily fit even the NFL's most expensive player in for $30M, but are the cuts worth it?
In recent history, most of the top WRs that earn big contracts stay with their current teams. Of the current 10 richest deals for WRs, 1 is a rookie contract, 2 are players that were traded and then extended and 7 are players that remained with their current team. What this seems to say about the NFL is that teams are willing to pay to keep the top WRs. How much are they willing to pay? Let's take a look at those contracts after the jump.
Here are the top 10 contacts given out to WRs as ranked by dollars per year:
When looking at these numbers, Larry Fitzgerald's contract stands out. That's a ton of money and Vincent Jackson will not be getting that kind of contract from any team, especially the Chargers. A little further digging would show you that none of these players ever reached free agency. Every one of these guys re-signed with the team that currently had them under contract (even the two that were traded before re-signing) with the exception of Calvin Johnson, who is still on his rookie contract.
Knowing that these players never reached free agency means a couple of things: the first being that the aforementioned WRs were all younger than Vincent Jackson when they re-signed and therefore had more productive years left in them when the team handed them big paydays. The second is that they were subjected to the ups and downs of the free-agency market. Sometimes players get extra money by avoiding free agency because the team pays a little extra to keep them from testing the waters. Other times more can be had when a bidding war ensues.
It's unlikely at this point the Chargers will pay to keep Jackson away from free agency and they've seemingly ruled out using the franchise tag. To the Chargers, Vincent Jackson is just a piece of the puzzle. Antonio Gates is the future Hall of Fame pass catcher on the team, and that means Jackson is - at best - a fantastic second option. When he reaches free agency, other teams will think different. Much like the Dolphins thought when they traded for Brandon Marshall, teams will see him as their #1. A guy that can help their QB take the next step. He make teams respect him and open up the running game while making big plays even in double-coverage. What that means is that he'll likely get paid like he's one of the top 10 WRs in the game whether any of us think he is or not. There are a couple of other options teams could look to like free agents Marques Colston, Wes Welker or Stevie Johnson, but none of them bring the track record, size or health of Vincent.
Given that this logic points to him getting paid in the top 10, let's split the difference and say his best offer will be a contract like Roddy White's. It's a contract that's somewhat backloaded, but has a nice $6M signing bonus and $18.6M guaranteed over the first 3 years. It averages something like a $7M cap hit each year for those first 3 years. That $30M in cap room would be down to $23M and would include releasing guys like Marcus McNeill, Luis Castillo, Kris Dielman and Takeo Spikes. Or perhaps you keep those guys and only have $3M in cap space, which isn't enough to keep Jacob Hester, Nick Hardwick, Antonio Garay, Mike Tolbert and Jared Gaither. Or perhaps you split the difference and cut somebody like McNeill and keep Hardwick and Gaither. Or keep McNeill, let Dielman retire and bring back Hardwick and Hester. In any of those mix-and-match cases you don't get any free agent pass rushers or safeties.
The more you ponder the numbers and value of all the players involved, the more it seems to point to letting Jackson go so that you can keep a large portion of the team intact. Of course, we're also talking about a team that went 8-8 and missed the playoffs the last two years. Perhaps it's due for a youth movement with Jackson still in the fold. Given all of this, which would you prefer?