Alshon Jeffery is a perfect demonstration of the bind that "middle talent" teams find themselves in. He's capable of making amazing athletic feats, but he falls short of being a truly elite player. While he is capable of dominating defenders on any given play, he has trouble stringing those plays together. He also has trouble staying healthy. I was in the middle of researching an article on the Bears offense when something stood out to me—Jeffery is sort of the Jay Cutler of wide receivers. Some of you are racing to the comments section with electronic pitchforks (some aren't even reading—you're just commenting), but there's more to this than a superficial comparison.
Let's go ahead and get the superficial comparison out of the way, however. They are both amazingly gifted athletes who are capable of doing things with their bodies that—even by the standards of the NFL—make people say "wow." They have troubled relationships with the media, and rumors seem to swirl around them. Finally, they are too good to let go but not good enough to put a team over the top.
With that said, let's start with a look at their injury histories. Since coming to Chicago, Cutler has only played in 87% of available games (one of those missing games was a bit of career-saving, blame-shifting, record-preventing hijinks from Trestman, but 88% works fine, too). Jeffery, on the other hand, has played in 80% of available games. So Cutler has an edge, here, but a quarterback is supposed to be a little more reliable in this regard. Whether or not this expectation matches reality is debatable, but it's fair to say that both miss more games than Bears fans would like.
Next, let's go with relative value among their peers. Because both players have missed so much time, I will shy away from cumulative stats. This also has the advantage of blunting the impact of how much the Bears have tended to lean on these players. Wide receivers and quarterbacks are often measured by their accumulated performances, but barring a Jimmy Clausen-like performance, a lot of what each individual player brings to the table would be accomplished by somebody else. After all, Cutler found someone to throw to when Jeffery and Bennett were out, and Jeffery's arms didn't fall off when McCown was throwing him the ball. Looking at Jeffery's per-play contributions is informative.
When it comes to yards per reception, Jeffery was 21st among wide receivers in 2015, 38th in 2014, 12th in 2013, and he wasn't among the top ranked in 2012. Likewise, in terms of yards at the catch per reception, Jeffery was 26th in 2015, out of the top 50 in 2014, 25th in 2013, and 9th in 2012 (all ranks exclude receivers with fewer than 10 catches, in order to counter the ability of a small number of runs skewing the mix). Finally, in terms of yards after the catch, he doesn't rank on a per-reception basis. Moreover, his catch rate is also nothing remarkable. Yes, he makes some amazing catches. However, he's not in the top fifty of wide receivers with at least ten targets in terms of catch rate in 2015 or 2014. Or 2013.
In other words, Jeffery is a really solid player who can accumulate yards and touchdowns and catches, but a lot of his stats come from how much the team needs him. He also has drops and plays he fails to make. If you pick a given year and a given stat (yards per reception in 2013, or yards at the catch per reception in 2012), you can find a time he rose to the top. Most of the time, though, he's not elite. Does that sound like anyone else known to Chicago fans?
Some people don't like advanced metrics, but it is here that the comparison really stands out. For 2015, Jeffery's DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) placed him 35th among wide receivers with at least 50 passes. His DVOA (which does a better job of measuring his contributions on a per-play basis) ranked him 42nd. 2014, on the other hand, saw #17 ranked 13th and 22nd, respectively. In 2013, he ranked 14th and 26th. Finally, in 2012 he
only caught was only targeted on 48 passes and so he was not ranked, but his DVOA was similar to that of the 27th-place wide receiver. For the years that we are able to rank him, that means Jeffery averaged and 22nd in overall value added and about the 30th-best in terms of per-play value. Cutler has more years in Chicago, but evaluated from 2009 to 2015, his average position relative to his peers is 23rd in terms of DYAR (overall value added) and 22nd-best in terms of per-play value added.
It is true that there are more wide receivers fielded at any given time by a team, but there are also more wide receivers available who can play at an NFL level, too. Cutler is a top quarterback in the same way that Jeffery is a #1 receiver.
However you want to work that particular angle, it all comes down to the reality that Cutler and Jeffery present the same kind of dilemma to a football team. They are great players who are in the top 20 or 30 of their trade, and very few athletes can match what they can do when they are at their best. However, their injuries and inconsistencies impose limitations that keep them from being truly exceptional players.
I sincerely hope that both players take another step forward and move up the ranks, because the Bears offense is probably going to depend on both of them to bring their best possible games.