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Not franchising Jackson is major risk that could zap the Bolts

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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If Vincent Jackson departs, the Chargers passing game loses major punch. (Getty Images)  
If Vincent Jackson departs, the Chargers passing game loses major punch. (Getty Images)  

Don't look for Vincent Jackson's name among those designated Monday as franchise players. He didn't make the cut. Instead, the San Diego Chargers will take their chances re-signing the talented wide receiver, and, while that's a risk, it's a calculated one.

Basically, the Chargers believe they can keep Jackson by signing him to a long-term deal that will cost them less ... perhaps significantly less ... than the $13.7 million he stood to make this season had they designated him their franchise player.

I don't know that they're right. What I do know is that they had no choice.

Look, they understand what you and I do, which is that Jackson is important to the team. He's a big, physical receiver who is in the prime of his career and who last year averaged 18.4 yards a catch and led the club in touchdown receptions. In short, he's their best playmaker on the outside.

San Diego wants Jackson back, but it couldn't designate him its franchise player for a couple of reasons: 1) It cost too much, and 2) it would be in this position again a year from now ... and maybe the year after that. That's why San Diego didn't budge Monday when others rushed at the last minute to designate franchise players.

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So that means Jackson can test the open market, and that's where it could get dicey for the Chargers. Frankly, I don't know what his chances are of returning to the team, and neither does his agent, Neil Schwartz.

"You'll have to ask San Diego that question," he said. "At this point, he's a free agent, and it's going to be about 32 teams."

Uh-oh. That's where the risk comes in. Conventional wisdom says that Jackson probably earns a contract worth $10-12 million annually, but all it takes is one club to break the bank, and the Chargers are toast.

I guess that's another way of saying don't look for a hometown discount. There won't be one.

I know, Jackson loves it in San Diego, he loves playing with Philip Rivers and he loves playing for coach Norv Turner. In short, he wants to stay with the Chargers, and that counts for something. But Schwartz's job is to take the best deal out there, and, in his mind, the Chargers have had seven years to keep Jackson off the market.

Now that he's there, he'd be crazy not to sell himself to the highest bidder, and expect that to happen. Jackson will be one of the most attractive free agents, but people who should know think San Diego can retain him with an offer comparable to the competition -- basically, because he wants to stay with the club.

But the Chargers historically pay no attention to the marketplace or the competition. They approach negotiations with fixed ideas on what they can and cannot afford, and if that's not compatible with the player they move on.

And so does the player.

If Jackson were to leave, the Chargers' passing game -- which ranked sixth a year ago -- would suffer. Jackson's departure would leave Malcom Floyd, Patrick Crayton and Vincent Brown as the team's wideouts, and, sorry, I can't find a No. 1 receiver in there.

Maybe they can win without him, but their chances of returning to the playoffs are enhanced by re-signing the guy. Except we've been down this path before with the Bolts and Vincent Jackson, and I'm talking about an acrimonious holdout in 2010 that had Jackson sit out the first 10 games of the season.

That was when the Chargers played without him, tight end Antonio Gates and Floyd for much of the season, yet wound up with quarterback Philip Rivers throwing for a league-high 4,710 yards and 17 guys catching passes.

Only one problem: The Chargers failed to make the playoffs for the first time in five years. They were 4-2 with him and 5-5 without.

Except that was a season where they were without Gates for six games and Floyd for five, and their leading receiver wasn't a receiver at all; it was running back Darren Sproles.

The Chargers appreciate Jackson's value. They also understand this is a business decision. So does his agent. That's what puts San Diego on the high wire, and don't expect anything to happen between now and March 13, the opening of free agency. I don't.

What I do expect is that the Chargers take a smart and measured approach to retaining Jackson, hoping that it keeps him in San Diego ... and not somewhere else ... for years.

It's a risk, but it's one they had to assume. They had no choice. But Jackson does, and that's where the Chargers could be in trouble.

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