“We’re going to be aggressive and calculated. We’re in a position to do so. We’ll have a clear understanding of our roster and where our needs are and where we want to add to each position.”
That’s what Bears general manager Ryan Pace said during the Bears’ season-ending press conference back in January. In one of the most crucial off-seasons in franchise history, the plan spins its wheels motion. No one understands their roster better than the Bears’ themselves and by all respects, they’ve let the first domino - meaning Alshon Jeffery - to drop to move along towards their ultimate goal.
On Monday, news of the Bears electing not to use their franchise tag on the 27-year-old star receiver, Jeffery, sent shockwaves all around and mustered up questions of just exactly what the Bears want to do moving forward in building a contender, or, heaven forbid, a championship team. But truth be told, the news shouldn’t have been shocking especially given the vibes Chicago has given off of late in regards to the Jeffery situation.
The first of those vibes concerns ESPN’s Jeff Dickerson report that the Bears haven’t engaged in any “recent meaningful contract talks”. So it’s clear Chicago doesn’t value Jeffery the same way he values himself as he’s looking to maximize his market value while playing for a contender. Take into account how little communication the two parties have had between each other and it’s easy to theorize that the vintage acrobatic Jeffery catch likely won’t be happening in a Bears uniform ever again.
The second is understanding what the Bears are prioritizing in regards to Jeffery. Even while he’s only played in 16 games twice in five seasons and hasn’t produced 1,000 receiving yards since 2014, he’s still a quality player. He’s still capable of the spectacular on occasion. He’s still a nice piece to have if everything else is in place. They just don’t think he’s worth the price tag he expects or wants.
A receiver is more of a cherry on top then the foundation of a football team. A player like Jeffery - who isn’t in the NFL’s elite tier of receivers such as Julio Jones or Antonio Brown - is a luxury for Chicago’s present roster, not something they desperately covet. If the Bears were a Jeffery away from a Super Bowl, there is no doubt they would look to retain his services.
Obviously, they are not that close to a Lombardi trophy. Far from it. A playoff team perhaps, that’s the ceiling for now without more questions. So, backing up a truck of money for their perennial will-he or won’t-he receiver is not in the crosshairs. Tagging Jeffery and assigning an approximate $17 million dollar cap hit or giving him a lucrative deal past their originally proposed $12 million average per year in the 2016 offseason is evidently too much of a risk.
From a sinkhole of a secondary that will no doubt be addressed in the next two months, to the eternal franchise quarterback dilemma the Bears somehow always find themselves in, there are larger problems at hand to be addressed then overpaying for a wide receiver with availability issues simply because he’s the best you have. That’s the Jay Cutler paradox. Either you never search for an upgrade because you’re afraid to take the leap of faith at a position or you overvalue your own players and hamstring other aspects of your roster.
Letting Jeffery go is a risky Hail-Mary in itself, but it’s what Pace and company feel they must do.
When you take a look at deals handed to other top wide receivers on the market, it’s clear why Chicago would be so apprehensive to hand top dollar to a player like Jeffery.
Some context on Alshon Jeffery. Here are the top WRs to hit the market in the last 4 years, their age and contract. Big $$ coming pic.twitter.com/89pWURACEr— Kevin Fishbain (@kfishbain) February 28, 2017
Of those names, who are you counting as being worth the money? The Lions’ Golden Tate...maybe? Because in that respect you’re just playing a Russian Roulette with a position that isn’t that crucial and has high bust potential in both free agency and the draft. Recent history isn’t kind and it’s rare the true franchise receiver is allowed to become a free agent.
In that light, reading into the Bears’ and Pace’s words spoken publicly is sometimes as difficult as translating ancient, forgotten dialects. You’re not quite sure what you’re reading or hearing.
But the actual and long written-in-the-wall decision to let Jeffery test the open waters of the league isn’t. It’s as transparent as can be and pretty simple: They don’t view Jeffery as that incremental franchise receiver. They don’t think they need him to win and ironically enough, end the longest championship drought in Chicago. They don’t believe he is worth the money he thinks he is entitled to by natural market fluctuation. This, by all accounts, is a statement by Pace that the Bears will find another way as grueling as it seems now.
In the Bears’ mind, it’s better to let someone else take the fall for Jeffery’s potential failure, such as the Philadelphia Eagles, instead of kicking the can down the road and entering negotiations with a player they don’t believe is particularly “elite.” And, moving forward, they’re willing to risk him flourishing with another team and take the short term hit, while writing their will and getting everything else into order.
This decision might be necessary and could pay off years down the line when people gloss about the new juggernaut Bears, but it also may not. Other decisions such as Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte were easy. One guy wasn’t conducive to your locker room’s chemistry and the other was a running back past his prime.
Unlike either of those decisions, Pace is being quite bold for the first time because Jeffery isn’t in either classification. He’s in the very peak of his career, looking to cash in and win consistently wherever he should choose to land. He’s the rare home-grown player the Bears have developed of late. Losing him will now put the new guess-who quarterback for Chicago in the 2017 season in a precarious position as he could struggle without reliable targets to throw to. Cameron Meredith and Kevin White’s development could falter without someone like Jeffery to draw attention away from them.
Of course, you’re also creating another roster hole instead of bolstering your receiving core, always a big no-no on paper, even if temporary.
Despite all of that, Pace and the Bears are willing to bet that won’t happen with Jeffery. This is the royal flush they’re pushing in onto the table.
Instead, Chicago will focus energy elsewhere as mentioned, like on finding their star quarterback. And that they’ll then protect him well with a good offensive line. That they’ll compliment with a solid running game as he makes any receiver they acquire look good because he’s comfortable in their offense. That they’ll finish building a dominant defense to take pressure off of said quarterback that will also possess the ability to win games by themselves. All with Jeffery nowhere to be found in the picture.
The job of an NFL personnel evaluator is by no means easy. General managers simultaneously need to have an eye on the big picture - meaning long-term team success - while also building a competitive roster in the here-and-now. Playing this see-saw of a salary cap and maintaining perspective opens one up to criticism and the proverbial hot seat, but that’s why those in charge make the difficult decisions. Sometimes you just have to cut the rope.
What the Bears would do here has no doubt dwelled on Pace over the past two years. Finally, he and Chicago have made their bed with Jeffery. Now it’s time to lie in it and see what happens with comfort, or await a rude awakening in the middle of the night.
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.