The Chicago Bears are in the middle of what's becoming a wide receiver cycle. It goes like this: Watch one towering target leave through either free agency or a trade, and he's then replaced by another maturing young wideout.
When it's laid out like that, everything seems so simple and routine. Scout the receiver, carefully select the receiver in the right draft slot, develop the receiver and then jettison him before sacrificing salary-cap space throughout a long-term commitment.
They followed a few of those steps with Brandon Marshall. He came to the Bears as a veteran and finished product. But he was 28 years old when he arrived in Chicago and spent three of his prime years hauling in quarterback Jay Cutler's deep heaves. Then the Bears traded him prior to 2015, partly because of locker room conflicts and partly because of his advanced age at 31.
What's happening with Alshon Jeffery now, however, is much different. It reflects a potential flaw in the wide receiver replacement machine—one that may be there for the wrong reasons.
The deadline to sign franchise-tagged players to long-term contracts passed July 15 without much of a peep from either the Bears or Jeffery's camp. He'll now be compensated quite nicely for his services in 2015, as his fully guaranteed one-year contract worth $14.599 million makes Jeffery the fourth-highest-paid receiver in 2016, according to Spotrac.
But a receiver who posted back-to-back 1,100-plus-yard seasons in 2013 and 2014 isn't tied down beyond that one year. That increases the likelihood that Jeffery, who's just now entering his prime and is six years younger than Marshall, walks as a free agent.
That would be a blow, but a tolerable or even acceptable one for the right reasons. Bears general manager Ryan Pace could take his pick between these two statements, neither of which he would ever say publicly:
- "We spent a seventh overall pick on Kevin White. Although twin towers would be great, we don't want to pay two receivers top-end money. So White will be our guy now (until he isn't)."
- "Look, Jeffery is a tremendously talented Pro Bowl-caliber receiver and has shown that through four seasons (or likely five after 2016). But he's struggled through a pile of injuries, and we're still just not confident in his ability to hold up long-term."
But strangely, there's a third and deeper reason for why Jeffery could end up wearing a different uniform. Let's turn to Jeff Dickerson, the Bears reporter for ESPN.com:
The bigger holdup, however, is how the Bears seemingly view Jeffery. While Bears players and coaches publicly praise Jeffery at every turn, it's unclear whether the organization considers him a true No. 1 receiver. Chicago's approach in negotiations suggests they view Jeffery more as a "1A" or elite No. 2 wideout.
There's a strong possibility the Bears aren't motivated by either health worries or depth. Instead, their actions have been guided by a bizarre concern given the results and game film Jeffery has pumped out in abundance even with his missed time.
They're worried about long-term production. And they're worried about paying Jeffery like a top receiver or thereabouts, only for his results to fall below that bar.
It's all puzzling, as nothing about Jeffery over his four NFL seasons—a significant sample size—indicates he'll spiral down a cliff.
As the salary cap jumps dramatically each offseason, the cost to keep talented young receivers expands along with it. So the price for a 6'3", 218-pound leaping bundle of athleticism is steadily rising, and someone will gladly pay it. That someone should be the Bears, because losing a receiver like Jeffery could be a crushing setback.
There is, however, a delicate approach to evaluating a receiver who sat out a combined 13 games in 2012 and 2015, with two healthy seasons sandwiched between those years.
Be careful about where your focus lies and how much you want to zero in on just those two injury-shortened seasons. What's more important: how much time Jeffery has missed or what he's done when healthy?
That's not an easy question to answer because the unpredictable nature of injuries brings up randomness an athlete can’t control. For example, Jeffery couldn't do much about the fractured hand he suffered during his rookie season. He also struggled through hamstring, calf, groin and shoulder issues in 2015 but still posted 807 receiving yards and four touchdowns over only nine games.
I'm often surprised at how quickly a player is lassoed with red tape and given the injury-prone tag, even when he's provided long stretches of health—just as Jeffery has done.
He's getting set to enter his age-26 season. In addition to the recent history of two healthy years, that youth should decrease injury concerns. We're not talking about some fading veteran with plenty of mileage and dings dotting his football body. Instead, Jeffery is just now entering his prime years. Age and prior production tell us there's a real possibility his peak still lies ahead.
The similarities between Jeffery, Jones and Bryant are striking. The comparison is intriguing given Jeffery's financial aspirations. The value of his one-year franchise tender set the baseline for long-term contract negotiations with the Bears that eventually failed.
Jeffery wanted his yearly average to fall roughly in line with the tag (again, $14.599 million) and become permanent, or at least as permanent as NFL contracts ever are before inevitably getting crumpled up. He wanted to enter the pay bracket occupied by Bryant, Jones and only two other receivers who are averaging $14 million-plus on long-term deals (the Bengals' A.J. Green and the Broncos' Demaryius Thomas).
Now, I can probably predict your reaction at the mere thought of comparing Jeffery to Bryant and Jones. You're likely the human version of the cry-laugh emoji.
But please recall that before Jones set the league ablaze in 2016 with the second-most single-season catches and receiving yards, and before Bryant caught that ball, both had similar starts to their careers when put next to Jeffery.
|Jeffery, Bryant and Jones over their first three seasons|
In four of the standard statistical categories we use to measure receiving production, a young Jeffery is either ahead of the equally young Jones and Bryant or only marginally behind.
The tightness across the board there is made possible in part by a problem Jeffery is familiar with: frequent ripping and/or breaking.
Both Jones and Bryant also battled through injuries early in their careers. The latter is still fighting that enemy after appearing in only nine games during the 2015 season. Meanwhile, Jones had more debilitating and concerning issues.
Jones sizzled when on the field early in his career. But he missed 14 games over the first three years of his rookie contract, prompting the same fears hovering around Jeffery now. Much of his time on the sideline came as a result of a fractured foot in 2013, a season when Jones averaged 116 receiving yards per game over five weeks.
Jones then benefited from more than just ballooning production in his quest to land a contract that now guarantees him $47 million, according to Spotrac. He also received a boost from a mystical power out of his control, something that has evaded Jeffery: luck and timing.
Like Jeffery, Jones' first three seasons were bookended by injuries. He missed 11 games in 2013 and needed a screw inserted into his foot in 2011. But the defining difference between him and Jeffery is that the Falcons receiver had time before the end of his rookie contract drew near to prove he was healthy and functioning at a high level.
Jeffery wasn't given that luxury, as his most injury-plagued season came during a contract year. Which leads us to yet another similarity between Jeffery and Jones: Even when he's not healthy for the entire season, the South Carolina native is still wildly effective and an offensive pillar.
He averaged 89.7 yards per game in 2015 and tied a Bears franchise record by posting three straight games with 100-plus receiving yards. He recorded a whopping 28 catches over games against the Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Chargers, finishing that stretch with 414 yards and two touchdowns.
There was one catch in particular that showed what makes Jeffery special. More importantly, it showed what should make him a franchise receiver either for the Bears or another team eager to pay him on the open market.
It came early in the fourth quarter against the Lions. Chicago was in the red zone, which is where Jeffery can make use of his best attribute: a wide wingspan and a resulting catch radius that needs its own area code in the sky.
Jeffery wins in coverage by providing a large target for his quarterback in a space only he can access. That offers a feeling of comfort, which in turn translates into making difficult throws easier.
Picture this: You're Cutler, and you can be confident in your primary receiver's ability to do this:
That's Jeffery's 11-yard touchdown catch against the Lions. The ball had to clear one underneath defender, and then Jeffery had to soar above two others.
Then there's this catch from a game later. Jeffery had to corral a deep, looping rainbow throw while adjusting his body to the ball in midair. He was in the midst of twisting and fading when it came down and then had to maintain possession as the Pro Bowler summoned his inner ballerina along the sidelines, tiptoeing to get both feet down.
The position of wide receiver is a source of acrobatic theater for Jeffery. Depending on your rooting interests, his hands are capable of either magic or pure sorcery.
They're his tools for winning battles and making the uncatchable seem catchable. Yet in the eyes of some, his reliance on athleticism and winning jump balls makes him a unique talent but still maybe not quite a franchise-cornerstone receiver.
Here's what an AFC director of pro scouting told NFL.com's Bucky Brooks:
[He's a] talented athlete as a big possession receiver. He would be a high-end WR2 in most places, but could be a WR1 in the right situation. He definitely makes plays as a jump-ball receiver and will get his catches, but I don't know if he can consistently deliver big plays. I like him, but don't love him as a WR1.
There's concern over how much Jeffery leans on spectacular plays over conventional catches. He has fine speed, with a 40-yard dash time of 4.48 seconds during the predraft process. But he's never had the sheer downfield burst to accelerate and be a threat to gain immediate separation.
That reads like a criticism and potentially a career-altering roadblock. But nothing has been further from the truth for Jeffery.
He may never be what we define as a true burner. But he finds his success in other ways through leaping, snatching, securing and high-pointing footballs from all angles.
As SB Nation noted, his catch radius is among the league's widest:
In this case, the results may be more important than the process. Jeffery has given us four years and 51 regular-season games to review. During that time, he's scored 24 touchdowns while recording 100-plus yards in 12 games, which is already tied for fifth-most in Bears history, per Dickerson.
It's understandable to be hesitant because of his injuries, a factor Jeffery only has so much control over. But we don't have to flip back far to see examples of large-bodied receivers who excel with the ball in the air and also struggled through the same injury luck.
Ultimately, if the Bears decide Jeffery is expendable, they risk losing a receiver who has a special skill set just as he enters his peak years. Sure, White could slide in, but isn't a twin-towers approach much better? The Bears still control White at a low price for four more seasons if they exercise his fifth-year option.
That's why the Bears' calling Jeffery injury-prone means they're terrified of risk. Saying he's expendable also means that during the height of a passing era they're willingly pushing aside a chance to optimize their roster.
Viewing him as something other than an offensive centerpiece is just a misjudgment of talent.