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Pay the man? A Bears’ financing dilemma with Alshon Jeffery

It’s beyond difficult to commit long-term to Alshon Jeffery without risk. Nevertheless, a decision looms.

Chicago Bears v San Diego Chargers
Alshon Jeffery is a good playmaker, but is the price tag really worth it for the Bears?
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

When asked in 2014 which receivers in the NFL he would rank ahead of himself in a pecking order, former Bears wideout, Brandon Marshall, mentioned two names: The Lions’ future Hall of Famer and since retired, Calvin Johnson as well as Alshon Jeffery.

As crazy as that sounds now to lump in Jeffery among the game’s best, Marshall preceded naming Jeffery among Johnson’s and his own company earlier that season with even higher praise.

“I’ve always said he could be the best to ever do it,” said Marshall in October 2013 following a monumental 13 reception, 200-yard and one score game by Jeffery against the New Orleans Saints.

Back then, it would’ve been difficult to pick a fight over Marshall’s hyperbolic comments given the early blossoming of Jeffery. While Marshall was a polished receiver that had just finished his seventh consecutive season over 1,000 yards, fifth with over 100 receptions, and second consecutive year with double digit touchdowns - Jeffery was that good in the advent of his career known as the 2013 season.

With breathtaking production and an invigorating recovery a year removed from a rookie season plagued by injuries and separation issues in 2012, who knew where Jeffery’s career would take him.

Jeffery played in all 16 games in 2013, only the second time in five seasons that he’s done so, while amassing 89 receptions, 1,421 yards (led the Bears), and seven touchdowns. Jeffery had become a prolific playmaker in the only sophomore year of his career. He was every bit the weekly human highlight reel.

The confidence of any Bears quarterback to simply throw it up in Jeffery’s vicinity and expect him to come down with the ball was born.

Plays like above against Dallas were routine and what Jeffery has now built his career on - the most ridiculous of catches. It’s what’s made him one of the most exciting players to watch in the NFL while simultaneously one of the most frustrating.

All of the other baggage Jeffery has accumulated is what’s at concern here for the Bears. As we near the close of the regular week of the first few days of the 2017 franchise tag designation period that began on Tuesday: It’s safe to say Chicago wants him back, but not at the price he wants or believes he’s worth. Not even close. If the opposite was true, we wouldn’t be sitting here discussing this time bomb of a roster decision in mid-February.

Why the Bears have pause is obvious.

Since 2013, he’s only played in 16 games once. He’s had more than your fair share of nagging injuries that for some unintelligible reason are always present. In two consecutive contract years, he’s missed a third of his games either because of injury, or, because he was suspended four games for performance enhancing drugs this past November. Either way, his production has dipped in that regard, as he didn’t have 1,000 yards in either of the last two seasons. A red flag for any team.

Some argued that if translated over 16 games, Jeffery would’ve easily surpassed several milestones in either 2015 or 2016.

But that’s not how it works. Football isn’t played in a vacuum of hypotheticals. The Bears can only operate on the information they’re given. The information they do possess tells them Jeffery isn’t a guy to go all in with - or it should anyway.

From my point of view, I wouldn’t call a receiver a true number one talent on the outside or pay him that way, if he’s hardly ever on the field. The game’s greats at receiver or every position, are those that create match-up problems while being available when called upon. That availability moniker is not an accurate description of Jeffery.

I’m sure this thought has endlessly crossed general manager Ryan Pace’s mind as well, even while publicly praising Jeffery’s health in 2016 back at the Bears’ season-ending press conference on January 4th.

“I thought he did a good job of taking care of his body in this year,” said Pace. “Soft tissue injuries went down.”

Classic posturing by Pace in making the attempt to not alienate a player by calling him out for an avoidable suspension while you’re in ongoing contract negotiations with him - whether they’re heated or not.

Sure, Jeffery can be a big player receiver, but can he be consistently relied on? Is this a guy that can play all 16 games, or at least most of them? He hasn’t delivered much proof of this and the burden of proof solely sits in his hands, not any personnel evaluator.

Not to mention the fact that while he’s an electric player when dialed in, you still can’t be too confident saying his ability is legitimately worth more than the proposed deal of $12 million the Bears offered him last offseason. For comparison’s sake, a receiver from Jeffery’s draft class in the ColtsT.Y. Hilton signed a contract extension in 2015 that has him sit at an average salary of $13 million per year.

Given that Hilton has surpassed 1,000 yards in four of his five seasons while routinely being among the best big play wideouts in football; is Jeffery even worth the same value as Hilton? Hilton has consistently delivered. Jeffery has not.

Of note, remember that if the Bears used a second tag on Jeffery instead of reaching an agreement with him, it would mean a cap hit of upwards of $17 million to fit in line with the average among the top five at his position. When you consider the rise of others such as the GiantsOdell Beckham Jr. or the TexansDeAndre Hopkins, is Jeffery still in the top 10 of best wideouts in the NFL? He wasn’t last year after being tagged, and likely won’t ever be again with the receiving talent in the league that’s arrived in droves. Essentially, a lofty assumption to make again after everything that’s transpired for the 27-year-old.

And its now why the Bears and Jeffery currently sit at this impasse. It’s why he doesn’t have a long term deal. And its why most are contemplating whether he’ll even return to have more home games at Soldier Field in 2017.

If Jeffery indeed hits the open market, he’ll definitely cash in. A team like the Eagles or Titans would love to have him on their roster for their young quarterbacks in Carson Wentz and Marcus Mariota to work with, respectively. The very nature of the way the free agent market unfolds means that Jeffery won’t be the only player overpaid for his services too.

It’s just business.

Know that the Bears would also love to have Jeffery for their quarterback too moving forward, whether it’s Jimmy Garoppolo, Deshaun Watson, DeShone Kizer, whoever. They want him to help along their next franchise passer while also acting as a boon for young receivers, Cameron Meredith and Kevin White. In actuality, that’s Jeffery’s greatest piece of leverage with Chicago. A void he leaves behind with question marks at receivers while leaving their next quarterback with a scarcity of weapons is seemingly almost enough reason to bring him back alone.

However, as the Bears sit here rife with cap space, they lose all of that flexibility for future moves as soon as they start overpaying for players who haven’t earned it, and make no mistake, Jeffery hasn’t earned that payday. There are more conducive investments to be made. The kind of contract he would receive is the type that you lament years down the line as a mistake by a general manager, unless he becomes the Jeffery of 2013 - the Jeffery of old.

What it boils down to is a stand-off that if by chance doesn’t pick up steam anytime soon - meaning March - Jeffery will be wearing a new uniform come next season. The only way we’ll know what was the “right” decision is in hindsight, months or years down the line.

Unquestionably, don’t envy Pace’s present platform. More comments on the Jeffery situation from that press conference noting “he’s a good player and that’s a big decision for us,” were as serious of an understatement as possible. Criticism will be thrown in Pace’s direction for some time in whatever he allows to happen i.e. such as letting Jeffery walk, until proven otherwise.

In the film Jerry Maguire, Rod Tidwell famously told the titular character, his agent, to “show me the money” while searching for a new contract. If Jeffery’s telling Pace the same thing over the phone, I’m not confident he’s listening.

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.