It was just six weeks ago that Denver Coach Josh McDaniels deactivated star wide receiver Brandon Marshall for the season finale against Kansas City due to conduct detrimental to the team, Marshall's second such violation in four months.
The Broncos had to beat the Chiefs at home to reach the postseason. Minus Marshall, who reached 100 catches for the third straight season, they were crushed 44-24 and missed the playoffs for the third straight year.
By all accounts, Marshall is making nice these days. Broncos owner Pat Bowlen told The Denver Post last week that he thought Marshall went through "a maturing process" last fall.
"Personally, I saw change in his personality and approach to things," Bowlen said. "He didn't have the same sort of attitude and anxiety he's had."
Yeah, but just wait and see what happens if Marshall, one of the truly elite wideouts in the league, has to play an uncapped 2010 season on a one-year, restricted free agent tender (with suitors required to shell out first- and third-round draft picks to acquire him). That's the scenario facing the Pro Bowler, who's averaged 1,237 yards and totaled 23 touchdowns over the last three years, and in Week 14 this past season, caught an NFL single-game record 21 passes in a loss at Indianapolis.
But he's not ... and he can't be happy about it.
Hey, if Marshall will dog drills, punt balls away from ball boys and drop passes on purpose when he's irked in training camp how will he react to play under the maximum $3 million a year tender this season -- with the prospect of no football (or income, by the way) the following season?
Here's a look at the bounty of wide receivers and tight ends -- maybe the best collection of any positions -- headed for some version of free agency next month.
Note: * denotes a restricted free agent who will become an unrestricted free agent in the unlikely event the league and players negotiate a new CBA before the deadline.
1) Vincent Jackson (San Diego), RFA*: After his breakout '08 season, Jackson followed it up with another great year in '09. Make that two straight 1,000-yard seasons in which he's combined to average a whopping 17.8 yards per catch. He's a big target (6-foot-5, 230-pounds) and has helped make Philip Rivers one of the best QBs in the game.
2) Miles Austin (Dallas), RFA*: In search of that big-time receiver to pair with Tony Romo, the Cowboys traded first- and third-round picks to Detroit for Roy Williams in '08. Then along came Austin in '09. He had 18 catches total his first three seasons, and 81 catches for 1,320 yards and 11 TDs (and remember those 10 catches for 250 yards against Kansas City in his first career start?) in his fourth. Nice timing.
3) Braylon Edwards (NY Jets), RFA*: He escaped the purgatory that is Cleveland with a midseason lifeline from the Jets, and wound up in the AFC title game. Edwards and the Jets have a good thing going. The guy loves the bright lights of New York and has a franchise QB throwing him the ball. Why leave?
4) Brandon Marshall (Denver), RFA: If the Broncos don't want to pay him lots of money (or have grown tired of his antics), they should have plenty of willing trade partners who will pay Marshall what he wants.
5) Malcolm Floyd (San Diego), RFA*: Lots of similarities to Jackson, relative to size and development. The two give the Chargers huge mismatch advantages in the passing game.
6) Steve Breaston (Arizona), RFA: With the retirement of Kurt Warner, the Cardinals need to keep as many of their offensive assets as possible for Matt Leinart (or whoever ends up under center next season). Breaston may not like being tied to a high restricted tender, but it would be fair -- especially with Anquan Boldin's perpetual unhappiness with his contract situation.
7) Derrick Mason (Baltimore), UFA: Just turned 36, but Mason is coming off his third straight 1,000-yard season (and eighth in the last nine) as the featured target in a Baltimore offense that doesn't throw it very well. Joe Flacco will want him back, but will the Ravens?
8) Antonio Bryant (Tampa Bay), UFA: Played under the $9.88 million franchise tag last season. Even though he's probably the most accomplished UFA on the market, he won't sniff that number (not even in a signing bonus; and certainly not from the Buccaneers). Bryant, who turns 29 next month, is coming off a season that started with knee surgery in training camp. After a career year in '08, he caught just 39 passes and four TDs on a 3-13 team, working mostly with a rookie QB in '09. He's done well to get past the reputation for attitude. Bryant could help a team.
Among the rest:
Jason Avant (Philadelphia), RFA*: Eagles find and develop lots of guys like this (41 catches in '09).
Isaac Bruce (San Francisco), UFA: One of just six players in history with 1,000 career catches, Bruce is expected to retire.
Mark Clayton (Baltmore), RFA*: Just five TDs over last three seasons.
Torry Holt (released/Jacksonville), UFA. Hall of Fame candidate caught 51 passes in first year with Jaguars, but no TDs for first time in career.
Lance Moore (New Orleans), RFA*: Might make millions off that acrobatic two-point conversion in Super Bowl.
Muhsin Muhammad (Carolina), UFA: Panthers may bring him back, but probably not as a starter. He'll be 37 next season.
Terrell Owens (Buffalo), UFA: At 36, he can still play ... and he's anybody's headache for the taking, if they want it.
Josh Reed (Buffalo), UFA: Coming off least productive season (27 catches) in the last six years.
Brad Smith (NY Jets), RFA*: As demonstrated in '09, all kinds of Wildcat (and other) possibilities here.
Donte Stallworth (released/Cleveland), UFA: Suffice to say, he'll come with some baggage (and probably some protest groups).
Maurice Stovall (Tampa Bay), RFA*: For a four-year veteran wideout and former third-round pick, he's excellent in kick coverage.
Kelley Washington (Baltimore), UFA: His 34 receptions last year were a career high.
Bobby Wade (Kansas City), UFA: Looking for a fifth team in seven seasons.
Troy Williamson (Jacksonville), RFA*: A top-10 draft pick by Minnesota just five years ago, but an absolute bust (just 87 career catches) so far.
Kevin Walter (Houston), UFA: Averaged very understated 59 catches over last three seasons.
1) Benjamin Watson (New England), UFA: He's been a reliable tight end in one of league's best passing games -- and can stretch the field down the middle, too -- for several seasons. If teams are looking for a tight end to gussy up an offense, Watson just might be one of the most coveted players on the market this offseason.
2) Bo Scaife (Tennessee), RFA*: After playing the '09 season under the one-year "franchise" designation ($4.49 million), Scaife is looking to land something more long-term and lucrative. The Titans should oblige. The former Texas standout has nice chemistry with collegiate teammate Vince Young.
3) Owen Daniels (Houston), RFA*: Had 40 catches heading into Week 8 when he blew out his knee at Buffalo. The injury might deter interest elsewhere, but not from the Texans. He was a key to the development of their high-octane pass attack.
Among the others:
Alge Crumpler (Tennessee), UFA: Averaged career-low 8.2 yards per catch on 27 receptions.
Anthony Fasano (Miami), UFA: A true, blue-collar Bill Parcells guy (brought him from Dallas).
Leonard Pope (Kansas City), UFA: Pretty much an underachiever in four seasons.
Alex Smith (Philadelphia), UFA: All-Rookie with Bucs in '05. All downhill since.
L.J. Smith (Baltimore), UFA: Averaged 38-plus catches in six Philly seasons -- and caught two passes for Ravens in '09.
Tony Scheffler (Denver), RFA*: Deactivated (along with Marshall) for Broncos' finale for attitude reasons. That's a red flag.