Inside Alshon Jeffery's Emergence as Game-Breaking NFL Wide Receiver

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Inside Alshon Jeffery's Emergence as Game-Breaking NFL Wide Receiver
Bleacher Report

With 12 receptions, 249 yards and two touchdowns against the Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery became only the seventh player in NFL history to have two 200-yard receiving games in the same season, according to NFL Vice President of Football Communications Mike Signora. 

Although Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns became the eighth soon after, that is still an incredible feat for the former second-round draft pick.

Coming out of South Carolina in 2012, many overlooked Jeffery's ability because of his perceived lack of speed. He dealt with injury during the draft process, running a 4.48 official 40 time at the combine, and ultimately fell out of the first round.

The Bears were happy to take him with the 45th overall selection, but that decision didn't immediately pay dividends. Jeffery had just 24 receptions for 367 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games as a rookie. Importantly, he did show some explosion and looked more comfortable on the field as the season progressed.

Progress is the key word for Jeffery.

To this point in his career, he has consistently become more productive the more he is on the field. During the last four games of his rookie season, he had eight receptions for 168 yards and a touchdown. In the first four games of this season, he has 18 receptions for 211 yards and a touchdown. If you combine his numbers from those eight games, they still don't equal his output for his last four games.

Jeffery has 32 receptions, 488 yards and two touchdowns over his last four games. While part of that production is a result of the offense he plays in, the defense must also account for Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett. There is no denying Jeffery is consistently making exceptional plays.

Speed is no longer a concern with Jeffery. He won't be catching teammate Devin Hester in sprints any time soon, but he has shown off enough speed to more than adequately complement his size. Standing at 6'3" and over 200 pounds, Jeffery is a big-bodied receiver who towers over most cornerbacks. However, he also has a sleek frame that allows him to be flexible in the air and stride downfield.

Fifteen of Jeffery's 58 receptions this season have gone for at least 20 yards because cornerbacks can't cope with his physical talent. For comparison's sake, 19 of Calvin Johnson's 72 receptions have gone for 20 yards or more, and 10 of Dez Bryant's 68 receptions have gone for 20 or more yards.

It's unfair to compare Bryant and Johnson's production to Jeffery's without context. Jeffery isn't the focal point of the defense's game plan every week the way Bryant and Johnson are, but both are also veterans who have already gone through their stages of development.

Jeffery isn't an elite receiver just yet, but this small sample of brilliance hints at a potential that could one day put him on the very top of any receiver rankings. That is also what he says he is striving for. 

He told the Chicago Tribune after the game, "My standard for myself is the sky is the limit. I want to be the best."

Anyone who wants to be the best has to work at it. Bears head coach Marc Trestman spoke of Jeffery's work rate, saying in the same article, "That's what we've been talking about. Guys who have been with us since training camp, we've been talking about his work ethic and his day-to-day preparation."

Quarterback Josh McCown added, "He works at it. We've got to be able to utilize both guys and we are."

Jeffery has clearly earned the respect of his teammates and that is reflected in how he is used on the field. Against the Vikings, he was involved early on in the first quarter.

He caught a bubble screen for six yards on 2nd-and-7 before Josh McCown forced a pass to him over the middle that was nowhere near. On the ensuing drive, Jeffery showed off his greatest strength as he ran a curl route at the first-down marker before fully extending to catch a slightly inaccurate pass with his hands. He followed that play up with a slant route against off-coverage for a first down on 2nd-and-1.

On 2nd-and-8 in the second quarter, McCown rolled out of the pocket before looking for Jeffery on another curl route. Jeffery was open, but McCown threw the ball into the ground. On the very next play, Jeffery came free again on a shallow in route. This time, McCown found him, and the young receiver escaped downfield for 19 yards and a first down.

NFL.com

Jeffery isn't an all-around receiver just yet. He can do enough to get by, but the likelihood of him consistently beating better cornerbacks with his route running is always going to be unlikely because of his physical frame. For his 19-yard reception in the second quarter, he got away with an illegal move as he used the defensive back's face mask to push him downfield as he broke inside.

So long as Marshall is on the field to draw the attention of the very best cornerbacks in the NFL and Forte is consistent coming out of the backfield as a receiver, Jeffery won't need to worry about becoming an all-around receiver. In his current situation, he can be a difference-maker for the Bears with big plays alone.

In the first half, Jeffery caught two slants against off-coverage, a screen, two very well-executed curl routes and a comeback route where he won at the catch point against off-coverage. His first really big play came at the beginning of the third quarter.

NFL.com

On 2nd-and-10, after Jeffery ran an unsuccessful end-around to start the quarter, the Bears are lined up on their own 20-yard line. Jeffery initially lined up out wide before motioning into the slot next to a tight end. The Vikings are playing off-coverage on Jeffery, giving him a free release.

Jeffery runs down the seam but goes outside past the outside shoulder of the defensive back looking to cover him. With his size, he is able to get position even as he tries to be physical with him down the field.

NFL.com

Even though he doesn't beat the defender with his speed, Jeffery is able to catch a perfectly thrown pass from McCown against tight coverage. Because he catches it in stride with his hands, he is able to keep moving forward as the initial defender tries to tackle him. Jeffery skips out of that tackle with ease before being faced with the safety coming across the field.

NFL.com

This is where Jeffery's speed comes into focus, but he has no problem outrunning the safety down the sideline. Much like his teammate had before, the safety dives low to try and trip Jeffery up but the young receiver is too strong.

For an 80-yard touchdown, Jeffery made it look very easy.

It looked easy because of his physical ability. He didn't run any complicated route or make any outstanding adjustment. He simply attacked the outside shoulder of the defensive back covering him before running straight down the field. His strength and size allowed him to catch the ball with his hands without leaving his feet.

A lesser athlete likely doesn't get the initial position on the cornerback, and he also likely doesn't have the ability to catch the ball without leaving his feet. Hence, he wouldn't have been able to finish the score with his yards after the catch.

On the very next drive, Jeffery ran a similar route from a similar situation. It was 3rd-and-long, but he was lined up in the slot to the left again with space between him and the defensive back.

Jeffery didn't directly attack the shoulder of the defensive back this time. Instead, he ran toward the sideline and put more of an arc in his route.

He didn't lose the cornerback, but he was passed off onto a safety coming across the field. The safety had perfect position to play the high pass from McCown.

NFL.com

Such thing as a perfect position may not exist against Jeffery. Instead of being involved in a 50-50 for the pass, situations that typically favor the defender more than the label would suggest because the defender doesn't have to catch the ball, this is a favorable situation for the Bears. Jeffery rises above the defender, catching the ball at its highest point, before falling into the end zone for the score.

Quarterbacks will always look to play with Jeffery. Even though he's not a possession receiver such as Wes Welker who can naturally develop a trust and relationship with seemingly any quarterback, his ability to make these kinds of plays makes him a percentage player.

By that I mean when the offense looks to Jeffery, the percentages are almost always going to be in his favor because of his physical gifts.

He won't do this against the better, tougher cornerbacks such as Richard Sherman, Lardarius Webb, Darrelle Revis or Patrick Peterson, but that is where his situation comes into play. Jeffery won't consistently see those types of players because that would expose the defense to the talent of Brandon Marshall.

Jeffery won't do this every single week. He is still just 23 years of age and has only played 21 career games. The more displays he has like this one, the closer he will be to reaching his peak, but nothing is certain in the NFL.

To this point, though, he has proved all his doubters wrong and he is earning rave reviews from those closest to him.

Forte told the Chicago Tribune, "He's coming into his own. Alshon is doing what he's supposed to do. He's out there making plays and catching deep balls and being that downfield threat, and also jumping over guys."

If he continues to do that, then he could easily be one of the best receivers in the NFL someday.

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