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49ers forced to give Randy Moss shot after market for Vincent Jackson got too steep

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

Randy Moss' return to the NFL is significant. Considering all the dominos that are about to fall around the league when free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. E.T., Moss' one-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers reveals a lot about the open NFL job market – and not just about the 49ers' woeful passing game last season.

The acquisition of Moss is a clear indication of how critical wide receivers in the NFL have become, particularly ones who are tall. As Moss was wrapping up his incentive-laden deal with the 49ers, the New Orleans Saints were working feverishly to get Marques Colston signed to a new contract before he hits free agency.

Once free agency officially begins, look for Vincent Jackson to quickly sign a deal that could be worth in the area of $12 million a year. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills are all expected to make a serious push for Jackson, who would still like to stay in San Diego if the Chargers make a remotely reasonable offer. (The Washington Redskins were expected to also be in the mix but it is unclear how much Monday's salary cap penalty affects their free agency plans.)

Last week, the Bills went out on a limb by re-signing wide receiver Stevie Johnson to a five-year deal that averaged more than $7 million a year.

[ Related: Niners desperate for WR punch ]

What do Moss, Colston, Jackson and Johnson have in common? Each is at least 6-foot-2.

Height and good hands can be found on the top four scoring teams in the NFL last season: New Orleans, the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. The Saints had Colston and 6-foot-6 tight end Jimmy Graham. New England has 6-6 tight end Rob Gronkowski. Green Bay has 6-3 wide receiver Jordy Nelson and 6-5 tight end Jermichael Finley. The Lions have this guy nicknamed Megatron. Maybe you've heard of 6-5 Calvin Johnson.

The Super Bowl champion New York Giants don't have one particularly tall receiver, but they had three guys last season (Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham) who all play bigger than their listed heights. For instance, Nicks' huge hands and condor-like wingspan allow him to play like a receiver who is much taller than his listed 6-1.

"It's all about creating that window to throw into," said 5-9 Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch, who appreciates everything Gronkowski did for the Patriots this season. "If you create that big window in the middle of the field, it's so much easier for your quarterback … really, who's going to cover [Gronkowski] in the middle when he gets running? [Quarterback] Tom [Brady] just chucks it up there and Rob gets it. Just play pitch and catch when you're that big."

While everyone is focused on Moss' deep speed, San Francisco's real issue was finding a player to go with tight end Vernon Davis so the 49ers can improve in the red zone.

"They talked about getting somebody in the red zone for the crossing routes and the stuff in the back of the end zone," a source said, referring to San Francisco's idea for signing Moss. At 35, that's a fair expectation for Moss, whose long arms made him a favorite of Brady for their three-plus seasons together (Moss caught 50 touchdowns in 52 regular-season games with the Patriots).

[ Free-agency primer: Offensive stars ]

San Francisco spent last season watching kicker David Akers set an NFL record with 44 field goals. That mark included 31 from less than 40 yards away and 18 of less than 30 yards. While the 49ers boasted a great defense and a good kicking game it isn't enough for long-term success.

That's why, until Monday, the 49ers were heavily in the running for Jackson until the price got outrageous.

Of course, Moss comes with all the well-known issues, but his deal will be extraordinarily team-friendly because Moss has something to prove.

Will Moss work with fiery coach Jim Harbaugh? That remains to be seen, but Harbaugh enjoyed their time together enough on Monday to give it a go. Then again, it's not like Harbaugh had a lot of choices.

Finding a big receiver at an affordable price isn't easy these days. In Detroit, the Lions are likely going to have to pay Calvin Johnson in the area of $15 million a year on his next contract, particularly if they want to lower his $21 million cap number for this season.

When you start to think about it in those terms, Moss' signing makes more sense.

Even if some view it as a huge risk.

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