Five Quick-Hit Observations from Day 1 of 2012 NFL Free Agency

As expected, teams didn’t waste any time making a splash on Day 1 of the 2012 NFL free agency period. (Funny how so many deals get done minutes after the opening of free agency when teams and players aren’t supposed to talk to each other until then.) While the receivers stole the show on Tuesday, the biggest name on the market is still without a home. Below are quick-hit observations from the first day of the NFL free agency period.

1. The Bears and Brandon Marshall are a perfect marriage (at least for now).
Most of the speculation involving the Bears the past 24 hours was centered on Mario Williams. But it was another big name acquisition that rookie general manager Phil Emery had his eye on. The Bears have been without a prototypical l No. 1 receiver for decades but Marshall will change all of that. From what I’ve read, Marshall deeply respects Jay Cutler and the feeling is mutual. Cutler targeted Marshall early and often while in Denver and as long as the latter can keep his head on straight, this trade should benefit the Bears greatly. And while some Chicago fans were clamoring for Emery to sign Vincent Jackson, the Bears’ faithful have to be ecstatic about landing Marshall instead. As for the Dolphins, two third-round picks are nice but Miami is now left with Davone Bess, Brian Hartline and Clyde Gats as its top three receivers. The Dolphins lacked offensive talent coming into the offseason and today they just sent their top playmaker to Chicago. While they may have parted with a headache, they just created another need for themselves in the process.

2. The Redskins overpaid for Garcon, but they’ve upgraded their receiver corps nonetheless.
The Daniel Snyder-led Redskins have been overpaying free agents for the better part of a decade. So when I read that they gave Pierre Garcon a five-year, $42.5 million contract it was hardly surprising. There’s no doubt they overpaid for Garcon’s services, but at least the fit is good. The former Colt is very good after the catch, which certainly suits head coach Mike Shanahan’s West Coast offense. Along with Garcon, the Skins also added Josh Morgan and Eddie Royal, so a team that desperately needed more playmakers on offense has come out of the gates strong this offseason. Robert Griffin III should sleep easy tonight knowing that his future receiving corps just got dramatically better over the last 24 hours.

3. It’s good to see the Glazer Family spend some of the Bucs’ cap money.
Two years ago the Buccaneers won 10 games and nearly qualified for the playoffs mostly because of a weak schedule. So the Glazer Family decided that they weren’t going to spend money last offseason in order to improve a young team that still needed to be tweaked. (Oh sorry, unless you want to consider the six-year, $19.5 million contract they gave free agent punter Michael Koenen.) This year, however, the Bucs made a statement by signing Vincent Jackson on day one of free agency. Even though Jackson could be limited in new head coach Greg Schiano’s run-heavy offense, at least Tampa Bay is actually trying to make improvements to its roster. When healthy and you know, playing, Jackson is a multi-faceted receiver. He’s a deep threat, he has great hands, he runs excellent routes, and he blocks extremely well. He’s the complete package and while $26 million in guaranteed money is steep, at least the Glazers finally cracked open that checkbook of theirs.

4. I can’t see Mario Williams winding up in Buffalo.
If I were Mario Williams I would go on as many visits as were offered to me. Premier edge rushers aren’t exactly available down aisle three at Wal-Mart, so he might as well make the most of the opportunity that he’s been given. Thus, there’s no reason not to go to Buffalo and listen to what the Bills have to offer. Apparently they’re willing to pay him as the top defensive player in the league, which is obviously great for Williams. But at the end of the day I just can’t see Williams signing with a team that’s not a contender. Sure Buffalo came out of the gates hot last year and maybe Williams would be their missing piece. But Ryan Fitzpatrick eventually cooled off and the team’s play fell off a cliff. There’s no doubt that Williams would improve their chances greatly, but there has to be another team willing to pay his asking price. Granted, he may have to take less to go to a contender but at least he would have a legitimate shot at reaching a Super Bowl. With the Patriots in the same division as the Bills, I just don’t see Buffalo contending for a playoff spot soon.
UPDATE: As I was saying, Mario Williams is a perfect fit for Buffalo.

5. Weren’t the Colts rebuilding?
I have no idea what the Indianapolis Colts are doing these days. Last year proved how devoid of overall talent they had when Peyton Manning didn’t play a snap and the team fell apart. And with Peyton off to destinations unknown, the Colts have a long ways to go before being respectable again. After cleaning house last week by parting ways with players like Manning, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai and Gary Brackett, I thought the team was going to start over with a massive rebuilding project this offseason. Instead, they re-upped with 31-year-old Robert Mathis on a lucrative deal and today signed Reggie Wayne to a three-year, $17.5 million contract. Mathis, and to a lesser extent, Wayne, are still productive players but I’m just not sure what the Colts’ game plan is here. Are they rebuilding or are they just trying to hold onto the past in any way they can?

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Brandon Marshall reunited with Jay Cutler

Jay Glazer is reporting on Twitter that the Miami Dolphins have traded Brandon Marshall to the Chicago Bears for two 3rd round draft picks. This is huge news for Jay Cutler and the Bears, and many are speculating that the Dolphins are clearing out Marshall to make room for Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne. It also impacts the Vincent Jackson sweepstakes. We’ll see . . .

Report: Bucs, Bears and Redskins all interested in Vincent Jackson

There have been conflicting reports over the last 24 hours about which teams are the supposed frontrunners to acquire free agent receiver Vincent Jackson. But this much is sure: V-Jax will have plenty of suitors when the NFL free agency period kicks off on Tuesday.

Over the weekend, The SidelineView.com’s Lance Zierlein said that the “belief around the league” is that the Redskins will go “very hard” after Jackson following their trade with the Rams for the No. 2 overall pick. Washington is in desperate need of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball and without a first round pick in 2013 and 2014, the Skins need to be aggressive in free agency. After all, Robert Griffin III will need a big target to throw to when the Redskins draft him with the second overall pick in late April. (Or at least, that’s what the supposed plan is in Washington.)

The Redskins were also mentioned by the Union-Tribune San Diego as one of the two teams believed by them to be the frontrunners for Jackson. The other team mentioned in the Union-Tribune’s report was the Bears, who have been in need of a prototypical No. 1 receiver for what seems like the existence of their franchise.

Ironically, there was a story in Monday’s Chicago Sun Times that conflicts with the Union-Tribune’s report. According to the Sun Times, the Buccaneers have the “inside track” when it comes to signing V-Jax, and not the Bears. Tampa Bay has loads of cap space and a definite need at receiver, so the Sun Times’ report may have legs. That said, it’s not uncommon that reports conflict with each other around this time of year, as player representatives try to build a market for their clients.

Jackson is now the face of a very deep wide receiver pool in this year’s free agent class, especially with Wes Welker (franchised/Patriots), Dwayne Bowe (franchised/Chiefs), DeSean Jackson (franchised/Eagles) and Steve Johnson (re-signed/Bills) off the market. Reggie Wayne (Colts), Marques Colston (Saints), Brandon Lloyd (Rams), Robert Meachem (Saints) and Mario Manningham (Giants) are all unrestricted and will be available on Tuesday. Mike Wallace is a restricted free agent, but if a team is will to part with a first-round pick he might become available due to the Steelers’ cap issues.

2012 NFL Free Agency: Breaking down the Wide Receivers

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson celebrates a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills in the fourth quarter of their NFL football game in Orchard Park, New York October 9, 2011. REUTERS/Doug Benz (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Free agency in the NFL begins on March 13 and leading up to that date I’ll go position by position while highlighting the best players, best bargains, as well as the riskiest investments.

Best in Class: Take your pick.
This is the deepest pool of free agent receivers that I’ve seen in a long time. Wes Welker, Mike Wallace, Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Marques Colston, Brandon Lloyd, Stevie Johnson, DeSean Jackson, Reggie Wayne and Robert Meachem comprise the top 10 free agents, but Mario Manningham, Laurent Robinson and Harry Douglas could also be available next month. Welker seems like a perfect fit for the Patriots’ offense and will likely stay in New England, but Wallace could be available if the Steelers can’t figure out a way to fit him under their cap. When healthy and not in the midst of a contract holdout, V-Jax is one of the more versatile receivers in the league in that he’s a vertical threat with soft hands who can also block in the running game. Bowe, Colston, Lloyd, Johnson, Jackson and Wayne have been, or still are No. 1 options in the passing game and Meachem certainly has the talent to be a No. 1 given his skill set. Teams needing a receiver have no excuse not to address that hole this offseason.

The Biggest Risk: DeSean Jackson
Jackson is only 25 and is drenched in big play ability. But he has 35 drops over the last four seasons, was a ghost at times last year because he was seemingly worried about his contract situation, and sometimes costs his team on the field with his immaturity. Because of his big play ability and success as a punt returner, plenty of teams will be interested in Jackson’s services next month. But with so many other free agent receivers available, teams weary of his inconsistency and maturity issues can cross his name off the list if they want to. His agent must pull his hair out thinking about how much money Jackson has cost himself over the past year.

The Best Value: Brandon Lloyd
Lloyd is still going to be paid like a low-end No. 1 but at 31 he’ll be cheaper than guys like Welker, Jackson, Bowe, Wallace and Colston. He didn’t post the same numbers in 2011 as he did in 2010 but don’t forget that the quarterback situation in Denver was brutal and Sam Bradford couldn’t stay healthy in St. Louis (the team Lloyd was traded to midseason). Even at 31, Lloyd is an explosive downfield threat who also has a large catch radius. The Rams would be wise to keep him in St. Louis but if he were to hit the open market, he could turn out to be a real value for his eventual production.

Best Cost-Effective Bargain: Robert Meachem
Meachem doesn’t have the numbers or name power as other receivers that could become available next month but at 27 his ceiling is still somewhat high. He’s consistent, as he’s averaged a touchdown every 10 receptions in the regular season and has just 11 drops over the last four years. He may never develop into a No. 1 but he’s worth a shot for a team like Jacksonville that is thin at receiver and has other holes to address this offseason (and thus, might not want to spend big at one position). Meachem could wind up being a cost-effective alternative to Jackson, Bowe, Colston and the other big-name receivers in this free agent pool.

Vincent Jackson willing to give the Chargers a hometown discount?

San Diego Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson (83) catches a pass against Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams (38) during their NFL football game in San Diego, California, November 6 , 2011. REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

According to the Union-Tribune San Diego’s Kevin Acee, there’s a belief that free agent receiver Vincent Jackson is willing to give the Chargers a hometown discount.

The Chargers are believed to be willing to pay Jackson between $10-11 million annually on a five-year deal, but they are inclined to let the market be set by others. Jackson is expected to receive more in offers from other teams.

Jackson, too, has expressed his desire to remain in San Diego, with Rivers and Turner, despite past tensions with the front office. There is even a belief by those who have talked with Jackson that he would take less from the Chargers than he could get elsewhere. However, he has desired a long-term commitment from the Chargers for more than three years and his list of suitors will make re-signing him a challenge once he gets to the open market.

V-Jax will have no shortage of teams interested in his services next month. The Bears come to mind as the most receiver-needy team, although one would think the Chargers would be pretty desperate to keep him in San Diego.

Philip Rivers threw for 4,710 yards and 30 touchdowns without having Jackson for most of 2010, but the Chargers can’t rely on an aging Antonio Gates to be their main weapon in Norv Turner’s vertical offense. When healthy and not in the midst of a contract dispute, Jackson is one of the most productive receivers in the game. He runs great routes, has soft hands, is a true vertical threat, and he’s a solid blocker in the run game. Even though his off-field issues make him somewhat of a risky signing, he’ll likely be worth his price tag this offseason.

It’ll be interesting to see how aggressive Smith is when it comes to retaining Jackson’s services. If V-Jax wants to stay in San Diego, the there should be no reason that the Bolts don’t have him locked up early in free agency. But nothing is easy when it comes to Smith and players’ contract situations.

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