Who will be Philip Rivers' top wide receiver target now that Vincent Jackson is gone?
It's fair for San Diego Chargers fans to shake their heads at general manager A.J. Smith's personnel decisions.
He let Drew Brees walk in favor of Philip Rivers. He let Michael Turner sign with the Atlanta Falcons and promptly saw LaDainian Tomlinson's production fall off a cliff. For years, many, including me, wondered what Darren Sproles could do with an expanded offensive role, but Smith watched him follow Brees to New Orleans. Sammy Davis (2003), Buster Davis ('07) and Larry English ('09) have been first-round busts in Smith's tenure, and the jury is very much out on Antoine Cason ('10) and Corey Liuget ('11), who have had shaky starts to their NFL careers.
Will refusing to pay $26 million guaranteed to Vincent Jackson this winter be added to the list?
Jackson was a perfect fit for Rivers. He is huge (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) and can fly (4.46 40 at the 2005 combine). During the past four seasons, Jackson is second among NFL receivers in average yards at the catch (how far down the field a pass-catcher is when he grabs a ball). Norv Turner's offense prizes downfield passing, and Rivers has the perfect wing for it; his 51 attempts that traveled 40-plus yards in the air from 2008 to 2011 is second highest among NFL quarterbacks -- only Joe Flacco has more.
Indeed, in that four-year span, Jackson was by far Rivers' favorite wide receiver target. Despite sitting out 10 games of the 2010 season because of a contract dispute -- more Smith trouble -- Jackson had 347 targets in that span. The second-highest wide receiver in that time (Malcom Floyd) had 260 targets, and third was Chris Chambers with 95.
Now that Jackson has left for the Buccaneers' big money, Smith changed course by signing a player away from the Saints: Robert Meachem. Presumably, Meachem and Floyd become the leading candidates to be Rivers' big-play receivers. Unfortunately, there are major warts on each man.
Floyd has a difficult time staying healthy. His career has been a drawn-out tease punctuated by hip, groin, shoulder, hamstring and head injuries. In his seven NFL seasons, he has exceeded 12 games once. He turns 31 in September and will be a free agent after the season. Despite the fact that he passes the eye test (6-5, 225 pounds), one wonders if he can handle an increase in targets.
Meanwhile Meachem, a former first-rounder, has played three consecutive 16-game seasons, lessening concerns about his early-career injury woes. (He missed his entire rookie season after undergoing knee surgery.) But production in the Saints' high-octane pass offense wasn't consistently there for the physically gifted (6-2, 210 pounds, 4.39 40) Meachem. He never caught more than 45 passes in a season and exceeded 100 yards receiving in only four of 62 regular-season games.
So who shines brighter in this new Chargers era? My preference is Meachem, because (A) Floyd is a bad bet to stay healthy; (B) Meachem is faster and a more naturally gifted route-runner and catcher; and (C) Meachem is the dude making the serious money ($14 million guaranteed overall, compared to $2 million this year for Floyd).
That said, I don't expect either of these guys to duplicate the 60-catch, 1,106-yard, nine-touchdown season Jackson produced for San Diego in 2011. Antonio Gates is still around, and Ryan Mathews is the man in the Chargers' backfield who should be a greater focal point in the offense for as long as he's healthy. While I think Rivers will regain some of the luster he lost last season, the fact remains that he tossed 20 picks in 2011 and saw his completion percentage edge lower (62.9 percent) than it had since 2007. I guarantee San Diego will execute more pass plays than rushing plays this season, but I wouldn't be shocked to see their run/pass ratio become run heavier than 19th in the NFL, as it was in 2011.
Why am I not higher on Meachem? Partly it's that Floyd is physically better suited to play the Jackson role. Remember how I mentioned that Jackson was second in average yards at the catch over the past four seasons? Well, Floyd was first. He actually made more big plays with Rivers tossing it to him than Jackson did. He just couldn't stay on the field. As long as he's out there, Floyd is a major drain on Meachem's week-to-week potential.
Alas, because he is so likely to get banged-up, Floyd will frustrate any fantasy owner who relies on him. I have Meachem rated No. 28 among wide receivers and Floyd 41st, though each has upside. Meanwhile, it sounds as if Eddie Royal could make some hay out of the slot and be worth a look in deep PPR leagues, while Vincent Brown will have to wait for injuries to get a real opportunity in 2012.