It may simply have come down to money. Jackson’s reported contract is for three years and $32 million. Jackson’s cap number in 2014 is $4.25 million, while the 49ers have about $4.6 million of room under the cap, before signing their draft class or extending Colin Kaepernick. It would have been a tight squeeze to get him on the books before Carlos Rogers’ money become available on June 1st.
What’s more interesting here is the fact that the 49ers seem to have been actively looking for a free-agent wide receiver. Jim Harbaugh has spoken about the team’s need for a playmaking wide receiver, and they are apparently at least interested in looking at free agents to fill that void.
All the great playmakers are gone at this point. Jackson was their last chance at grabbing a big name to line up next to Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin. There are still some notable free agents out there, however. Here are three players who the team could sign for less than Jackson signed for.
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The modus operandi for the 49ers in recent seasons has been to sign a receiver off of the Super Bowl champions. Before the 2012 season, they added Mario Manningham from the New York Giants. Before last season, they picked up Anquan Boldin from the Baltimore Ravens.
Sidney Rice would continue the trend. Released by Seattle thanks to an unpalatable contract, Rice is still an effective jump-ball threat when healthy. When healthy, Rice is a great route-runner with an amazing catch radius—he doesn’t need the pass to be perfect to haul it in.
Of course, “when healthy” is a huge qualifier when it comes to Rice. He’s currently coming off of ACL surgery and has battled knee, shoulder, calf and foot injuries, as well as a lengthy concussion, in his time in Seattle. All in all, he’s spent 40 weeks on either the injury report or injured reserve over the last three seasons.
Still, he’s an athletic player with great on-field smarts. He’s not a slot receiver, per se, but could come in at the flanker position and contribute in three-receiver sets. He’d be a bit of a flier thanks to his injury history, but he’s only 27. There’s plenty of time for him to bounce back to the level he was at in 2012 at the very least.
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The reason for optimism regarding Holmes centers around his quarterback play. Going from Ben Roethlisberger to Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith is going to depress any player’s stats. The theory, then, is that moving to an offense where Holmes isn’t the No. 1 target and has Colin Kaepernick throwing the ball to him could see a rebound in his numbers.
Holmes’ glory days are most likely behind him, however. Holmes is 30 years old, so the odds of him bouncing back to the level he played at when he was 25 is asking a lot.
Holmes also hasn’t endeared himself to his teammates. An anonymous teammate has called him “a cancer. It’s like dealing with a 10 year old.” Holmes was benched in 2012 after having a shouting match in the huddle with quarterback Mark Sanchez.
While any receiver available at this point will have question marks, Holmes just has too many to be a worthwhile option for the 49ers.
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If the 49ers can’t get one ex-Eagles receiver, why not try for the other one Philadelphia cut this offseason?
Let’s be honest—Jason Avant doesn’t fill Harbaugh’s criteria as a playmaking receiver who can attack all areas of the field. What he would add is a veteran presence, a sure-handed receiver with a great locker room presence.
Unlike Rice or Holmes, Avant hasn't had any major injury situations the past few seasons—he missed two games in 2012 with a hamstring pull, but that’s the extent of it. Avant also has significant experience in the slot. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has charted him with nearly 1,200 routes in the slot over the past three seasons, a wealth of experience that dwarfs anything Rice or Holmes has to offer.
Avant is 31 years old, and his best seasons are likely behind him. Even in his younger days, Avant usually wasn't talented enough to be a regular starter; he’s only started 53 games in his career, despite playing in 116.
He still has great hands, though, catching 65 percent of the passes thrown his way. He’s also a highly respected presence in the locker room, with his owner, Jeffery Lurie, saying that “there have not been any players who’ve represented the Eagles with more class and dignity” than Avant in the statement announcing his release.
Signing Sidney Rice would be a high-risk, high-reward maneuver—betting on the most talented of these players bouncing back from multiple seasons of injuries.
Signing Jason Avant would be a low-risk, low-reward maneuver—at around the veteran’s minimum, Avant would battle Quinton Patton for the third and fourth receiver slots.
Signing Santonio Holmes would be another high-risk, low-reward play—a player who wore out his welcome in New York without the quality of play to justify taking him in.
At this point in free agency, no player is perfect. Considering all the factors, either Rice or Avant would be solid additions to the 49ers as it stands, though neither would make all the questions in the passing game disappear.