Jackson thrives as Rams still search

EARTH CITY, Mo. – Finding a difference-maker at wide receiver has been a difficult task for the St. Louis Rams in the years since Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce moved on.

They’ve taken their shots through the draft and kicked the tires or signed some in free agency. None has become the No. 1-type wideout Bruce and Holt were in their primes.

Finding a top-notch receiver in free agency is usually an exercise in futility. Rare is the top-tier wideout who hits the market, goes elsewhere, and maintains that No. 1 status.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson might be the exception to the rule. After finally landing on the open market at the end of the 2011 season, Jackson quickly became the hottest commodity available.

Teams lined up to sign the 6-foot-5, 230-pound receiver despite his off-field woes in hopes that he’d be the No. 1 target he’d been for San Diego. The Rams, who host Jackson and the Bucs on Sunday, were one of those teams hoping to get involved but the bidding quickly got out of hand.

“There was probably, around the beginning of that period, maybe four or five teams that were seriously interested,” Jackson said in a conference call with St. Louis media. “I never had direct contact with the Rams themselves, but we were very open to going to the best place that I could fit in and be successful and, obviously, a program and a team that I agreed with the philosophy. So, I can’t really say that they were really a contender because I never heard from them personally.”

That’s probably because the marriage between Jackson and Tampa Bay happened so fast. Only hours into the start of free agency, word leaked that Jackson had agreed to a five-year, $55.55 million contract with the Bucs.

Jackson’s price tag was out of the Rams’ reach and they likely never had much of a chance to land him anyway. St. Louis attempted to get in on the bidding for other available wideouts such as Pierre Garcon, Harry Douglas and Robert Meachem.

The Rams landed none of those targets and ultimately settled for a stop in the bargain bin for the other Steve Smith, a project that failed to the tune of 14 catches for 131 yards in his lone season with the team.

Jackson, meanwhile, has been every bit as advertised in his performance on the field and in his role as a leader for the young Bucs offense, especially rookie quarterback Mike Glennon.

“Vincent brings a work ethic and maturity and professionalism that’s critical,” Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano said. “He’s been a good example since he arrived here just about two years ago now, and for a rookie quarterback to have a guy like Vince, not only to throw to and to know you can trust, but to also gain from his valuable experiences. Vincent’s played a lot of football. I know Mike values that.”

In his nearly two full seasons with the Bucs, Jackson has posted 141 catches for 2,475 yards and 15 touchdowns. Against the Rams last year, Jackson had seven catches for 108 yards.

For comparisons sake, that’s more than half of the yardage and touchdown production of the entire Rams’ receiving corps in that span. Rams receivers have 4,373 yards and 27 touchdowns in that time.

There aren’t many receivers who have signed as free agents anywhere who have had the success of Jackson in Tampa Bay. The Rams know that first-hand after the whole Drew Bennett experience. But if ever they were to break the bank to get the right guy, Jackson would have been it.

“Obviously, I’ve got a lot of respect for their coaching staff and the things they’re doing over there, so who knows what could’ve happened,” Jackson said. “Tampa’s been a great fit for me. This is a great organization, a great city, and I’m really enjoying it down here.”

While Jackson thrives in Tampa Bay, the search continues in St. Louis.