What should we make of the Vincent Jackson situation?
First, it's important that we define "situation," because when it comes to Jackson, there have been so many reports, so much speculation, that it's difficult to recount all of the risk factors surrounding him. So here we go:
• Jackson has been suspended for three games by the NFL for violating the league's personal conduct policy. This stems from his pleading guilty in February to driving under the influence, his second such offense. As such, he'll miss Weeks 1-3. Though Jackson could have appealed in an attempt to shorten the ban, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported in July that the star wide receiver would not.
• Jackson and the San Diego Chargers are locked in a contract stalemate, and the receiver is holding out during the preseason as a result. Numerous reports have him seeking a five-year deal worth $50 million with $30 million of that guaranteed, but the Chargers reportedly tendered the restricted free agent only a one-year deal of just north of $3 million in June. How long Jackson plans to hold out is unknown.
• As a direct result of his holdout, the Chargers have placed Jackson on the roster exempt list, and to fill you in on the rules regarding that, a player on that list is ineligible to play until the fourth game after the date he signs. In other words, it's the effective equivalent of another "three-game suspension," except that if he signs by Sept. 4, he can serve that concurrently with his NFL suspension. If he doesn't, there's a chance he'll have to sit out Weeks 4-6 as well.
• The Chargers have made it clear they're willing to trade Jackson, except that his roster-exempt status travels with him to his new team, meaning he has to agree to terms by Sept. 4 or risk missing six regular-season games.
• If Jackson wishes, he can sit out as many as 10 regular-season games -- in other words, he can sit until Week 12 (the Sunday after Thanksgiving) -- because that's the maximum time he can hold out while still accruing the year's service time he needs to become an unrestricted free agent.
Got all that?
Anything we say about Jackson is pure speculation at this point -- though speculation is really what fantasy is all about -- but we should agree that Jackson's chances at missing more than three regular-season games are high. His chances at missing as many as 10, in fact, are noticeable, certainly right up there with Sidney Rice's, at least among players who finished among the top 50 overall or top 10 among wide receivers in fantasy points in 2009.
I'm all for picking players I call "per-game" performers, and had Jackson and the Chargers amicably agreed to terms months, even weeks, ago, it'd have been easier to justify selecting him as a top-20 wide receiver. He'd have been locked into the role of Philip Rivers' top deep threat, one that helped him to nine touchdowns and a 17.16 yards-per-catch average last season, fifth in the league among receivers with 30-plus catches. Instead, he's guaranteed to miss at least three games, could be out as many as 10 and hasn't gotten in a lick of preseason time. Talk all you want about how unimportant the preseason is, but when a player sits out every practice, some rustiness should be expected upon his return. It has an impact, however small.
Don't dismiss Jackson's risk factors, either, with the simple statement, "Oh, but he'll get traded somewhere else he can shine, like to the Minnesota Vikings."
There are a few problems with that train of thought: One, he and his new team might have the same negotiating problems that he has with the Chargers; they could disagree on him being worth dollars equivalent to one of the five highest-paid receivers in football. He and a new team would have to agree to terms, then the Chargers and his prospective new team would have to come to terms on trade compensation. Then there's the roster-exempt "deadline" of Sept. 4, after which point any new team might be less interested in acquiring his services. And if you know anything about midseason trades, they're pretty rare in the NFL.
A final thought regarding Jackson's trade prospects: How about the potential learning curve of adapting to a new playbook? Unfortunately, due to a lack of midseason (or close-to-the-season) trades, there isn't a lot of historical evidence to demonstrate the impact of quickly adjusting to new surroundings, but those familiar with the NFL know it's not always easy to make an instant transition.
In other words, while I might have been pro-Jackson back in, say, June or even early July, when it seemed like he might miss only three games, then return with a vengeance, today he's a player for whom the risk outweighs the reward. The smart move would be to draft him assuming he sits for six weeks, which means that's at least three weeks you'll have him tying down a bench spot during the challenging bye weeks. It also means he might offer you 10 games' production, or 62.5 percent of a season, which isn't a lot even if he's a top-10 performer in those weeks.
Fantasy owners are selecting Jackson 64th overall (66.6 average draft position) and 23rd among wide receivers, and remember that some of those numbers accounted for the earlier preseason weeks when it seemed more likely he'd play a significant chunk of the season. As an on-average sixth-rounder, he's essentially the top name on your bench, and I'd argue he'd be smarter to wait on another round or two, when you're clearly selecting upside bench options.
But if I'm so anti-Jackson today, who steps up in his absence in San Diego, if anyone is capable of doing so?
Antonio Gates might be the natural assumption, except that he might not see much of a statistical shift at all. Let's not forget that he was the intended receiver on 20.7 percent (206 of 997) of the Chargers' total pass attempts in 2008-09, nearly identical to Jackson's 20.8 percentage (207 of 997). That reinforces Gates' status as the Chargers' "No. 1 receiver" regardless of your opinion of a healthy, unsuspended, committed-to-play Jackson, and if you're worried about increased defensive attention on Gates as a result of Jackson's absence, consider that Gates averaged 73 receptions, 954 yards and nine scores and was targeted 25.2 percent of the time (236 of 937) in 2006-07, before Jackson truly emerged and when the Chargers lacked a star-caliber wide receiver. Granted, Gates was in his prime then and is 30 years old today, but his targets might go up while his skills slightly decline, the result of which might be a statistical wash.
Malcom Floyd is the most obvious candidate to step into Jackson's role as the Chargers' primary deep threat. He actually finished ahead of Jackson in yards per catch (17.24, fourth in the NFL) and was seventh in yards per target (10.5). He managed 32 catches for 496 yards in his final eight regular-season contests, caught three or more balls in each of those plus the Chargers' one playoff game and he's similarly sized to Jackson -- both are 6-foot-5 -- with comparable speed. What Floyd lacks, however, is the experience and elite skill set of Jackson, meaning that while his ceiling might be in the ballpark of Jackson's, his basement might be only slightly greater than his 2009 stats, which earned him only a No. 54 ranking among wide receivers in fantasy points (77).
Certainly Floyd's stock is -- and should be -- on the rise, as he's being picked 41st among wide receivers and 128th overall (126.4), but his newfound opportunity might make him worth being picked a round or two sooner. Remember, ADPs take into account drafts that occurred before these recent developments. For example, in our Tuesday mock draft, Floyd was an 11th-rounder (106th overall).
Legedu Naanee is the other candidate, a sizable (6-2, 220 pounds) receiver who managed a respectable 24 catches for 242 yards and two scores while serving as the team's third/fourth wide receiver. He is, however, even less proven than Floyd, meaning that no matter how many acrobatic catches he makes during the preseason, there's no guarantee he'll amount to anything more than, say, Floyd was in years past. Naanee in his new role bears watching, but outside of the deepest leagues, he's more of a possible in-season pickup than a late-round steal.
Expect Rivers to get his running backs more involved in the passing game, too, especially as 24.5 percent of the Chargers' intended passes (127 of 519) went to that position in 2009. Darren Sproles, who had 45 catches on 57 targets, led the way, and despite the presence of rookie Ryan Mathews, Sproles might match or exceed those numbers in 2010. After all, Mathews had only 19 receptions total in college, meaning the best-case scenario probably has him merely matching LaDainian Tomlinson's 20 catches on 30 targets of a year ago. That makes Sproles a bit of a flex-play sleeper, in addition to handcuff status for Mathews owners.
As for Rivers, Jackson's absence might have an adverse effect on his statistics. Rivers completed only 61.0 percent of his passes and averaged 22 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions in 2006-07, when his receiving corps was Gates and bits and pieces. Compare that to his 65.2 completion percentage and averages of 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions the past two seasons, when Jackson was at his peak while Gates remained one of the game's best tight ends. That's still a top-seven caliber quarterback, but it's a primary reason Rivers isn't regarded a top-five option; even Tony Romo probably has greater upside.
Ultimately, Jackson's situation has a somewhat adverse impact on the Chargers' offense, but its impact is significant in one aspect: Upon the receiver's value himself.