Jackson, a Pro Bowler in 2009, can negotiate with other teams. If he receives an offer, the Chargers can either match the other club's offer or receive two first-round draft choices as compensation.
"There's some thought process that there might not be a franchise tag, but we'll wait and see," general manager A.J. Smith said, referring to speculation that the franchise tag might disappear whenever the NFL and the players' union agree to a new collective bargaining agreement. "It is our intention for him to return in '11."
Jackson, a 6-foot-5 receiver who had consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in 2008-09, will receive a one-year tender at the average of the top five salaries among receivers last year, expected to be between $10 million and $11 million.
The Chargers and Jackson could also negotiate a long-term contract, although the sides would have to get past last year's bad feelings.
Jackson's original five-year contract expired after the 2009 season. But because 2010 was an uncapped year, he would have needed six seasons to become an unrestricted free agent.
Unhappy that he didn't get a long-term deal, Jackson refused to sign a $3,268,000, one-year tender as a restricted free agent. He sat out the first seven games and then reported in time to serve a three-game suspension on the roster exempt list — he was placed there in a hardball move by Smith. He was on the active roster for the final six games to accrue a season toward unrestricted free agency.
When Jackson hadn't signed the tender by June 15, the Chargers slashed their offer to 110 percent of his 2009 salary, or $583,000. Due to the games he missed, he made less than $300,000 in 2010.
"It was really kind of the same decision as a year ago," Smith said. "We wanted him to return and according to the system in '10, we tendered him $3.2 million. Because of his situation with where he was, that didn't go real well. Moving forward to '11, he is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent by the system. We looked at the team and at him as a player, and felt like we wanted to move forward with him in place in '11 with the franchise tag. We wanted him to be here last year and we want him to be here next year."
In his first game back, Jackson lasted only two plays before limping off the field with a strained right calf. He missed the following game and finished the season with 14 catches for 248 yards and three touchdowns.
With Jackson's off-field trouble — two DUIs and being cited for driving with a suspended license and expired tags on the morning of the Chargers' playoff loss to the New York Jets in January 2010 — it's generally believed that the Chargers might feel it'd be risky giving him a long-term deal.
Jackson's agent, Neil Schwartz, didn't return a call seeking comment. Schwartz was critical of Smith when the Chargers didn't trade Jackson last season.
"I've heard there were ill feelings but that's been other people's version," Smith said. "Our version was just business. It didn't go well on their end. We treated it as a business transaction and obviously they weren't happy with our position. With the franchise tag, we don't know what their position will be. They have been notified."