Taken in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft, Alshon Jeffery struggled with injuries and inconsistent play in his rookie season, but he is coming off of back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and the Chicago Bears will need to make a decision about his future soon.
He signed a four-year rookie contract in 2012, and although the Bears have full control over Jeffery through the end of the 2015 season, they could entertain the idea of signing him to a long-term extension before this season starts.
But should they?
General manager Ryan Pace did not formally address whether or not the club will try to sign Jeffery to a long-term extension this offseason, but he did say he will not let any conversations carry over into the regular season.
‘‘We’ll talk about it throughout the offseason,’’ Pace said, according to Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times. ‘‘There comes a point in the season where we’re going to stay away from those things and not let it be a distraction. But right now, it’s just a case-by-case analysis of each player.’’
Jeffery is just 25 years old and in the prime of his career, but there are still questions about whether or not he is a bona fide No. 1 receiver.
Can He Produce Without Brandon Marshall and Maintain His Weight?
As soon as Jeffery was drafted by the Bears, Brandon Marshall took the young receiver under his wing.
During the offseason in 2013 and 2014, Marshall brought Jeffery, as well as other teammates, down to Florida to get ready for the upcoming season.
In training camp back in 2013, Marshall raved about Jeffery's transformation from his rookie season to his second year.
"He was softer last year, much softer," Marshall said, according to Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune. "Now he's strong. He's a beast."
After hauling in just 24 passes for 367 yards with three touchdowns in 10 games in 2012, Jeffery hauled in 89 catches for 1,421 yards with seven touchdowns in 2013.
Jeffery and Marshall combined for 2,716 yards and 19 touchdowns that season, and both were named to the Pro Bowl.
When asked by the Mully and Hanley Show in January 2014, via CBS Chicago, who the best receiving duo in the league was, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said, “Oh my goodness. I would say they’re the best duo in the game. Alshon and (Marshall), those guys are playing so well. Just to see how far Alshon’s come in a short period of time, and obviously Brandon’s still playing at an elite level."
There were high expectations for both Jeffery and Marshall in 2014, but both struggled with injuries.
Jeffery played in all 16 games last season, but he missed a lot of practice time due to a nagging hamstring injury. He finished the season with 1,133 yards on 85 catches with 10 touchdowns.
Marshall played in just 13 games and hauled in 61 catches for 721 yards with eight touchdowns. He was a disturbance off the field at times last season, and Pace decided to trade the much-maligned receiver to the New York Jets earlier this offseason.
Jeffery had the luxury of going up against single coverage while Marshall was taking on double-teams, but he may be forced to take on double-teams next season unless the team can bring in another receiver to line up on the other side of the field. Pace did sign veteran Eddie Royal to a three-year deal last month, but he will likely spend his time playing out of the slot.
In addition to not knowing whether or not he can produce without Marshall on the field, there are some concerns about Jeffery's conditioning.
Before the 2012 draft, Jeffery was considered to be one of the best wide receivers available, but there were concerns about his weight, according to ESPN's Todd McShay:
Jeffery's bio on South Carolina's official website listed him at 229 pounds, but, according to Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com, Jeffery played closer to 235 pounds in his final season for the Gamecocks. After he was drafted, Jeffery claimed to be much lighter, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune:
Jeffery's weight did not appear to be much of an issue in his first three seasons in the league, but new head coach John Fox wants to implement a new conditioning program because he thinks Jeffery has been overweight at times in his career.
“I think [the new conditioning approach] will help him,” Fox said, according to Michael C. Wright of ESPN Chicago. “There have been times in his career when he might have been a little bit overweight, but obviously a beast as far as size, and a guy we’re looking forward to getting to know better.”
Pompei agreed with Fox, tweeting:
Jeffery is not a receiver who relies on quickness, so a few extra pounds will not hurt his speed, but he relies on good technique and strength to beat defenders, and he could start to slide down a slippery slope if he is unable to maintain his weight in the future.
Even though there are some concerns about his weight and whether or not he can produce without Marshall, he still has two 1,000-plus-yard seasons under his belt, he is just 25 years old, and few receivers in the league have the ability to go up and get the football like he does.
Because of his strong hands, he has the ability to make highlight catches look routine, and even though he does not have top-end speed, he does a great job of getting defensive backs out of position with his route-running ability.
Barring any sort of major injury or off-field issue, the Bears are likely going to want to get a deal done with Jeffery sometime before the start of the 2016 season, but they may be able to save some money by signing him to an extension this offseason.
How Much Will an Extension Cost?
According to Over the Cap, Jeffery will make $1,447,036 in 2015, and he will undoubtedly be looking for much more money in a new deal.
Maclin, who is just 26 years old, is coming off of his first 1,000-yard season and signed a five-year, $55 million deal with the Kansas City Chiefs at the start of free agency. Cobb will turn 25 later this year and signed a four-year, $40 million contract with the Green Bay Packers with $13 million guaranteed after registering his first 1,000-yard season. Lastly, Smith is also 26 years old and signed a five-year deal worth $40 million with $8.75 million guaranteed.
If the Bears try to lock up Jeffery now, they may be able to sign him to a deal similar to Cobb's four-year, $40 million contract, but if they decide to wait it out—and he has another stellar season in 2015—the Bears may end up having to pay him closer to $11-$12 million a year.
Dallas' Dez Bryant and Denver's Demaryius Thomas were both franchise-tagged this offseason, meaning they will be in line for a big payday in the future. Assuming Bryant and Thomas receive big deals next offseason, market value at the position could go up, meaning Jeffery's value will likely go even higher if he has another productive season.
Despite concerns about his weight and whether or not he can produce without Marshall, Jeffery has shown over the course of the past two seasons he has the ability to take over a game when needed. The Bears could always wait out the season and see how he plays, but they could risk having to pay him even more money if he has another big season.
If the Bears want to lock him up for the future at a good price, they would be wise to give him an extension this offseason before the going rate for wide receivers goes through the roof.
Matt Eurich is a Chicago Bears Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.