2012 was a big year for Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, as he finally got back his old partner from Denver, wide receiver Brandon Marshall. The Bears offense had lacked a big-play wideout for years and general manager Phil Emery took it upon himself to give Cutler and the Bears offense new weapons.
Along with trading away two draft picks to the Miami Dolphins for Marshall, Emery moved up in the 2012 NFL draft to select South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery, who early into his second season may be the NFL's biggest surprise.
Jeffery was somewhat of a polarizing figure heading into that April's draft, with many analysts voicing their concerns over his effort and weight issues. ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert called Jeffery, "the first boom or bust player in Emery's tenure as the Bears' general manager."
On the contrary, Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller tweeted out after the Bears drafted Jeffery:
#Bears pick No. 7 overall player, Alshon Jeffery - Steal. Great pick who will be instant deep threat for Jay Cutler's big arm. Love it.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 27, 2012
Injuries derailed Jeffery's rookie season as he played in just ten games, hauling in 24 catches for 367 yards and three touchdowns.
His poor numbers were partly due to injuries and partly due to an anemic offense run by Mike Tice. The hiring of Marc Trestman as head coach and the installation of a new offense has made Jeffery one of the league's most productive players so far this season.
Jeffery's 561 receiving yards are already good for 11th most in the league, and he is currently tied with DeSean Jackson for the second-most receptions of 20-yards or more with 12, just two behind the Baltimore Ravens Torrey Smith.
His big-play ability has been on display in recent weeks: He averaged over 22 yards per catch in his last four games, hauling in 20 catches for 457 yards and two touchdowns.
The biggest difference for Jeffery between this year and last is his improvement in creating separation from NFL defensive backs.
Jeffery was allowed an outside release and was able to position himself between Houston and safety Glover Quin and use his big frame to haul in the 44-yard pass from Jay Cutler.
Because of his size, he is typically able to overpower smaller defensive backs. Houston played that pass correctly, but Jeffery's combination of size and leaping ability, coupled with perfect ball location by Jay Cutler, made the throw impossible to defend.
The Chicago Tribune reported that Jay Cutler will be out at least four weeks with a groin injury suffered in Week 7 against Washington. It will be interesting to see if backup QB Josh McCown will be able to have the same rapport with Jeffery as Cutler did.
This past Sunday, having taken over for the injured Cutler, McCown was moving the offense down the field. On a 1st-and-10 play from the Bears' 46-yard line, Jeffery lines up to the right of the formation, off of the line of scrimmage.
McCown pump fakes and is able to find Jeffery sitting down in the coverage, well between Redskins safety Reed Doughty and cornerback Josh Wilson. The play resulted in a 20-yard reception.
He has consistently shown this season that he can use his large frame to beat smaller defensive backs in man coverage and the ability to find an open area when teams run zone coverage.
Along with his talents as a pass-catcher, he has shown that he's dangerous as a runner this season, accumulating 88 yards on six rushes this season, including a 38-yard run in Week 2 against the Minnesota Vikings.
On this play, the Bears line up with Michael Bush in the backfield and shift fullback Tony Fiammetta to Cutler's right prior to the snap.
They fake the misdirection run to Bush before Cutler hands off to Jeffery coming from the right of the formation. Key blocks from Fiammetta and Marshall help spring him down to the Minnesota 34-yard line.
In addition to breaking out this season as a pass-catching wide receiver and occasional runner, he has also become one of the game's better run-blocking wide receivers.
In Week 4 against the Detroit Lions, the Bears offense lined up in a Base-I Formation, with Michael Bush in the fullback's spot and Matt Forte lined up behind him and Brandon Marshall and Jeffery off to the right of the formation.
Cutler fakes a handoff inside to Bush and tosses it to Forte to his right. Jeffery engages with cornerback Darius Slay and pushes him back nearly ten yards, right into safety Glover Quin while Forte rumbles his way into the end zone for a 53-yard touchdown.
It is rare to find a young wide receiver who is willing to run-block with such enthusiasm, and he has benefited greatly by watching a guy like Marshall.
While it is too premature to tab Jeffery as the next "big" thing in the NFL, his improvement across the board is making him a more complete wide receiver and one of the biggest surprises early in this NFL season.