During the 2012 NFL offseason, 216 players switched teams as unrestricted free agents (UFAs), according to data collected by Spotrac. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers happened to be one of the big movers on the market that year, and they ended up with some big misses and one very big hit.
That big hit was wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who stands among the likes of Hardy Nickerson, Brad Johnson and Simeon Rice as the best UFA signings in franchise history. Jackson's place on that list is inarguable, but that doesn't tell the full story. He can actually be considered a free agency hit on an even bigger scale. Simply put, that was one of the best free agent acquisitions across the entire NFL in recent years. It was certainly one of the most successful moves of 2012.
Over the last few days, dozens of big-name free agents have signed new contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, some of them stretched over five years or more. By this point, however, most NFL fans know to look for the guaranteed money in the deal, and they understand that many signees never see the end of a five-year deal.
Vincent Jackson is about to head into the final year of the five-year, $55-million deal he signed with Tampa Bay in 2012 after seven seasons in San Diego. He is expected to start and be an integral part of Dirk Koetter's offense, and if he can avoid the injuries that limited him last fall it would be no surprise to see him put up his seventh 1,000-yard season in the last nine years.
The best photos of wide receiver Vincent Jackson.
Of all his accomplishments of the past four years, actually playing into the final year of his contract might be the best indication of how much Jackson has given the Buccaneers on the field, in the locker room and in the community. It is a surprisingly rare accomplishment.
Of those 216 UFAs who switched teams in 2012, one signed a six-year deal, 17 signed five-year deals, eight signed four-year deals, 21 signed three-year deals, 35 signed two-year deals and the other 134 got one-year contracts. Of those 18 players who got contracts of five or more years, only three have a chance to finish those deals: Jackson, Washington wide receiver Pierre Garcon and Dallas cornerback Brandon Carr.
The percentage of completed contracts doesn't go up much even when three and four-year deals are included. Of the eight players who signed four-year UFA contracts with new teams in 2012, only two stayed with those new teams for all four of those years: Dallas guard Mackenzy Bernadeau (mostly as a backup) and Carolina fullback Mike Tolbert. Of the 21 UFAs who switched teams on three-year deals that offseason, only five saw the ends of those contracts. Put it all together and you have 47 unrestricted free agents joining new teams on contracts of three or more years, and only 10 of them playing through those entire deals.
That doesn't mean there were no other successful signings that year. The Saints probably felt good about the three years they got out of guard Ben Grubbs before letting him go with two years left on his deal after the 2014 campaign. Mario Williams did seem to leave the Bills on an unhappy terms a few weeks ago, but only after racking up 43 sacks over the first four years of a six-year pact. And it also doesn't mean every incomplete contract ended badly. Peyton Manning sure gave the Broncos their money's worth for four of his five years before retiring last Monday.
Still, almost none of those deals have been as fruitful for their teams as the one the Bucs and Jackson agreed on that spring.
It can be difficult to compare the success of signings across different positions, of course. How do you weigh the relative contributions, for instance, of Jackson (4,153 receiving yards, 20 touchdowns) and Carr (six interceptions, 39 passes defensed, 263 tackles) over the past four years? Pro Football Reference employs a catch-all valuation called AV, or "Approximate Value," which is of some use in this regard. (Read more about the AV methodology here, if you wish, but know that is expressed in a single numerical value for a player's season, and it's cumulative for his career.)
Let's pull the 2012 UFAs who signed two-year deals into this part of the analysis. That gives us a pool of 82 players changing teams. Of those 82, only two have accounted for more AV than Jackson in the four seasons since that 2012 free agency period: Manning and Williams. In this case, we are giving the players credit for what they accomplished from 2012-15 no matter how long they played on those original contracts or which teams they ended up with. Here are the top 10:
No matter what happens next fall, the signing of Vincent Jackson to a five-year contract in 2012 is already one of the best moves the Buccaneers have ever made in free agency. The fact that Jackson still has a chance to make that move look even better – and simply to finish that five-year pact – is an impressive and rare accomplishment, both for the player and the team.