No one has ever denied Alshon Jeffery’s talent.
He’s a player that’s made the most spectacular receptions with regularity. A strong, graceful ballerina with length on the football field. Objective lobs of throws to others, are designed plays to Jeffery. The definition of a matchup problem, even if he isn’t inherently one of the two or three transcendent current receivers in the NFL such as Julio Jones or Antonio Brown.
What has always been the problem with Jeffery however, is his reliability. Whether it be with well-documented injury maintenance or lack thereof. Or, general discipline as one of the Bears’ franchise talents. This is a man who wants to and probably should be paid according to his talent level among his peers, but has raised too many questions of dependability for Chicago to be comfortable in rewarding him as such.
There is a reason Jeffery is set to hit unrestricted free agency - again - should the Bears and general manager Ryan Pace not tender a second franchise tag. An easy implication to draw from.
Seasons previous like 2015 are what have made the receiver so tantalizing and frustrating at the same time. Jeffery appeared in just nine games and caught 54 passes for 907 yards and four touchdowns in 2015. A startling lack of availability due to a variety of ailments. Translated over 16 games, that would have been dominating number one receiver production, but obviously, he didn’t play the full season so that’s just conjecture.
In fact, Jeffery has played a full slate of games in his five year career, just twice - 2013 and 2014 - not by coincidence, the two seasons of his best production.
2013 was the breakout year where you first saw Jeffery dominating defensive backs aerially again and again. 2014 was where Jeffery toughed it out through several nagging injuries to prove he can be available when necessary. The most notable of occasions in the famous not-so-famous ‘Sunday Night Football’ game against the San Francisco 49ers where both Jeffery and the star-crossed former Bears, Brandon Marshall, played hobbled in a gutty victory.
Otherwise, Jeffery’s had anything but the best of luck in staying on the field.
With 2015 already mentioned, the worst was his rookie 2012 season. Jeffery broke his right hand against the Jacksonville Jaguars in mid-October of that year. After finally recovering for several games, Jeffery would then injure his knee against San Francisco in a Monday night game. He would miss another few weeks - mitigating progress he could’ve been making in the time frame of an up-and-down inaugural debut.
All of this, history that no doubt led the Bears to tender Jeffery to a franchise tag last February instead of giving him the payday he was seeking. And who could blame Chicago for being apprehensive?
Yes, he was their best receiving talent, but his availability or lack thereof proved to be an immovable object in negotiations. A summer of discontent then followed as Jeffery missed the first several weeks of non-mandatory organized team activities, as he attended a Chicago Cubs game to throw out the first pitch in the mean time. The two parties of course never agreed to anything substantial by a July 15th deadline, as the Bears dared Jeffery to “prove it” in 2016 or so to speak. Both parties all smiles on the outside even while tension and disapproval loomed underneath.
Ah, the irony of how careers and contentious negotiating can go.
In a “bet on yourself” type of 2016 season, both Jeffery’s and the Bears’ dealing hand has been folded with an objective lack of quality of cards.
The first hit of value was Jeffery’s production.
While for a short time Jeffery was among the least targeted receivers in the NFL, the statistical sheet still wasn’t kind. For a guy seeking a monumental raise to have a two-month stretch of 36 receptions for 583 yards and just one touchdown, isn’t the most flattering of ideals.
But hey, he played in all nine games available to him before then, so silver linings were abound.
That was until Jeffery was suspended for four games according to the NFL’s performance enhancing drug policy, following Chicago’s 36-10 loss to Tampa Bay in November.
As a professional athlete, I have been careful about what I put in my body. I took a recommended supplement ... https://t.co/hqaWvBxRdo— Alshon Jeffery (@TheWorldof_AJ) November 14, 2016
He of course - for public relations purposes - released a statement afterwards to explain himself, but the damage was already done. A 2-7 team already in the bottom five in scoring and without several incremental pieces offensively like Kyle Long, was now without it’s top receiving option. Whether it was due to carelessness or an overly stringent NFL policy, it doesn’t matter.
The primary fact is, while it potentially changed nothing of the Bears’ thoughts of Jeffery moving forward limited to the suspension alone, it took away four valuable games where Jeffery could have been playing well and separating himself from the competition.
You know, proving his worth, rebounding from a slow start ... always fun.
And whether you find it noteworthy or not, an outside linebacker should never be outscoring a team’s top receiver, as Leonard Floyd is on the year. A fact of both praise and indictment.
Even Jeffery lamented the mistake himself this week in his return. The Bears have lost three of four in his absence.
“I feel like if I was playing, some of those games, we would have had a different outcome,” said Jeffery.
Chicago likely would’ve enjoyed one more win - especially with how some receivers have struggled - given the close margins against the Giants, Titans, and Lions. But football isn’t played in a vacuum of automatically inserting a player meaning automatic success, so at least Jeffery has that going for him.
From the Bears’ side of the dividing line: they have to have Jeffery in Chicago long-term at this point. Such is the nature of business and health, respectively.
After former first round pick, Kevin White broke his ankle in October - someone originally drafted to help buoy the receiving core - Jeffery had a wide open door to demonstrate his availability. The Bears’ stance weakened. After others like Marquess Wilson have struggled with injury issues even after returning from injured reserve, Jeffery’s platform has only grown.
Also factor into the relative ineffectiveness of bottom of the depth chart guys, Joshua Bellamy, Cameron Meredith, Deonte Thompson, and Daniel Braverman, and you have a potential stalemate at the table. That could only benefit Jeffery.
It was only two weeks ago where Bears receivers set a record for dropped passes in the past decade.
Bears receivers dropped 10 passes today. That is the most for a team in a game in the PFF era(2006-2016) pic.twitter.com/aH3430bfoD— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) November 27, 2016
So a group desolate at the moment, needs Jeffery as painfully risky as it might be to open up the checkbook. They realistically can’t let him walk with so many questions at receiver otherwise.
The Bears will have multiple options with Jeffery though, sure.
They could tender him to a second franchise tag, but that will cost them $17,518,000 for the 2017 season, and again send them into this spiral of Jeffery proving himself to the organizational brass. Tension they’re not likely to be fond of.
Of note, the Bears did save approximately $3.5 million that Jeffery forfeited during his suspension, so they could look at the tag as being similar to 2016 with the proper savings.
Or, they could obviously lock Jeffery into a long-term deal he seeks. That comes with it’s inherent risks as outlined, but could be a worthwhile investment should Jeffery finally come into his consistent own in the prime of his career.
This route should be especially considered, since the Bears figure to be flush with cash in cap space this coming offseason. All the more following the potential release of several expensive players such as Jay Cutler, Eddie Royal, Lamarr Houston, etc. The Bears can spend on talent like Jeffery they need to keep around, while also spending on positions of need such as safety.
With three games left in his season, maybe Jeffery makes the decision easier. Matt Barkley certainly welcomes his return, as does the rest of the Bears offense.
His head’s certainly in the right place.
“Hopefully, whatever happens at the end of this season, is something good,” said a Jeffery thinking about only what’s ahead.
We have ourselves an old-fashioned Western stand-off that Clint Eastwood would be proud of brewing here again, and I’m not sure who will win.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.