We’ll be doing previews throughout the season on free agent and extension eligible players and today I wanted to touch on Alshon Jeffery of the Chicago Bears. Jeffery is an interesting player because he has a real chance to hit free agency next season which is very rare for a player of his skillset. Among wide receivers the only recent players to sign top tier contracts in free agency with another team are Vincent Jackson (2012), Mike Wallace (2013), and Jeremy Maclin (2015) and only Jackson statistically belonged in the top group when he signed his contract. Pretty much everyone else signed to a lucrative contract has re-signed with his team. While it is not impossible to see the Bears tagging Jeffery for a second time, that is a rare occurrence in the NFL.
I think it is pretty clear that Jeffery belongs in the tier one class of receivers. If we prorate his season out this year here is how his statistical averages since 2014 match up with the two year prior stats of players who signed a contract worth at least $10 million a season.
The only area where Jeffery is going to compare poorly to the other top players is his touchdown production which is pretty low compared to the top contracted players. He actually tracks with the second tier contract players in this category and it’s an issue worth discussing.
Will that be a game breaker? Probably not but it is one of the reasons why he flies under the radar compared to some of the other players who sign lucrative contracts. While he has had one double digit TD season, that was three years ago. He currently has zero on the year and was only on pace for 8 scores last year before injury ended his season.
Remember when a GM makes a signing of this magnitude they are often putting their career in the hands of these players and that can scare off some decision makers. Impact stats are often how a player signing is judged especially if the team is not playing at a high level. For example Olivier Vernon has been good enough for the Giants this year but his impact numbers are zero and with the Giants struggling his name is one of many being brought up to illustrate the poor job done by the general manager.
While some may point to his 10 touchdown season a few years back the NFL is littered with players who were unable to recreate those seasons whether it was a Wallace or a Dwayne Bowe who could never turn it back on after seeing their numbers drop for a few years.
Jeffery should be a much safer bet than those players because there is no turn off period in overall productivity. The Bowes of the world generally were unproductive when their teams struggled in almost every category. Jeffery isn’t that nor is he a flash in the pan whose reputation is built off one season or the “upside potential” of his draft status.
The only other negative on Jeffery has been health. He was injured last year and his name keeps cropping up on injury reports this season. Teams are not going to want to chance sinking a ton of money into a player who may not project to be healthy.
Outside of those two issues there is little to dislike about Jeffery. Everything about him screams the prototypical receiver that teams are desperate to get their hands on. This is why these type of players never ever leave their team. I guess the question is would the Bears allow him to leave? If Chicago applies the franchise tag again in 2017 it will bring his two year pay to $32.12 million with no upside of a third year. Here are what the two year salaries for top receivers were followed by the end of contract discounts that teams receive if the player is still on the team after two seasons
|Player||Two Year Pay||Two Year APY||Remaining APY|
This is one of the reasons why I dislike the use of the franchise tag on players like Jeffery. The tag has its time and place, but in general if you are not a very good football team and the player is under the age of 28 there is no reason to not get a long term contract signed. If they go the tag route again the Bears have essentially agreed to move Jeffery into 4th on the pay scale but with no additional years. The other teams paid a premium to their players for the possibility of retaining them for the next two to three years at discounts under $13 million a season.
For the tag to really make financial sense you put yourself in a position where after using it twice you need to sign the player to a deal worth under $11.5 million. If the player is successful that will never happen. If he isn’t successful, well you still paid him what you would have had you just re-signed him.
I’m not sure how far the two sides were apart in negotiations but the Bears will likely come out of this with egg on their face if Jeffery is healthy for the year. If I had to guess I would imagine that the Bears were looking for a Keenan Allen style contract ($11.25M per year) since both were injured but I don’t see that comparison. In Allen’s first two years in the NFL he accounted for about 1,800 yards receiving and was on a torrid pace for 1,400 yards in 2015 before he was hurt. Jeffery had 2,500+ yards in 2013 and 2014 and was on a 1,600 yard pace when hurt. Id also argue that Allen signed a below market contract because he was very risk averse, which ultimately benefitted him since he was hurt again this season.
The minute the Bears saw Allen Hurns sign for $10 million a season when he could have been a restricted free agent it should have been a sign that the times were changing. Add in Doug Baldwin’s $11.25M extension and there should have been a different sense of urgency for the Bears. The contract landscape was then completely blown up when you had Tavon Austin and Emmanuel Sanders signing for $10+M.
It’s just hard to picture Chicago’s strategy being to tag him twice rather than just agreeing to something similar to the Dez Bryant contract at the start. Maybe they will tag with the intent to trade but Jeffery should have the leverage to be negotiating as a free agent after the season whether with Chicago or another team.
Here is the average contract for a tier 1 player:
|Years||Total Value||APY||Full Guarantee||Total Guarantee||Signing Bonus|
These were probably the minimums that the Bears should have been working with last year and even though above I mentioned that Jeffery was trending slightly below average he should have far more leverage than other players. With more or less everyone else who has signed a contract essentially signing an extension, the leverage was held by the team in those situations. We have few examples of receivers of this type hitting free agency, but based on the ludicrous amounts of money spent on players like Vernon, Janoris Jenkins, Ndamukong Suh, and Malik Jackson among many others in the last few years it is a safe bet that Jeffery should overshoot this number, assuming he finishes the year on his current pace.
Could he pass AJ Green for first in terms of annual contract value? I don’t think so. Despite whatever leverage Jeffery may hold I think there is too much of a disparity between him and Green. Green is more or less a Pro Bowler every year with 10 touchdowns and 80 yards a game. Jeffery is a notch below that. If he closes out the year incredibly strong then he has a chance but with so many problems at quarterback its hard to see the possibility for the kind of close needed to drum up that level of interest but I can’t totally discount it.
Right now I’d say it is likely that he ends up in the $14M range, either right above or right under Bryant and Thomas. If its going to happen with the Bears it probably needs to happen by February otherwise it may be a second year of playing on the tag.