Chicago Bears second-round pick, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, was impressive during rookie minicamp last weekend. He looked lean and explosive, not the sluggish player he sometimes appeared to be during his junior season at South Carolina.
He pulled up late in the first practice with a calf cramp that appeared to linger into Saturday on the wet field. Yet under bright skies Sunday, Jeffery was outstanding. In 1-on-1 drills with the rookie corners, he dominated. He ran better routes than he showed in college and used his height to his advantage. Not a one of Chicago's young DBs could touch him.
"Alshon, that big body, that size, and he's a little better getting out of the breaks than I anticipated, and that some of the other guys anticipated," said receivers coach Darryl Drake. "You like those things; there's some great things to build on."
Jeffery also demonstrated his leaping ability, which, combined with his size, will give Jay Cutler a nice jump-ball target near the sidelines.
"I saw him make a few plays over there in the 1-on-1s," said offensive coordinator Mike Tice. "Back in the day, we called that ‘picking peanuts.' He was picking peanuts off some guys' heads it looked like to me. So I think he's going to have the ability for us to make plays.
WR Alshon Jeffery
"You could tell he has some explosiveness about him. You could tell he has some ball skills. That's why we drafted him so high. You can tell that he's going to be a playmaker for the Bears for 2012."
While he didn't catch every pass thrown his way, Jeffery showed the good hands for which he was touted coming into the draft.
"I didn't see him drop a ball," head coach Lovie Smith said. "He's got great hands. Big target. I really like the way he came in. He should be in the mix to help us win games this year."
Yet Jeffery isn't without his faults. While his route running was better than expected, it still needs a lot of polish.
"You can tell he's been working at it, running his routes, doing the kind of routes that we run. Some of the things they did were a little bit different at South Carolina, but again, football is football," said Drake. "He's able to adjust, and that's the pleasing thing about it. He's able to take the concepts and the angles of the routes we're teaching him, and he's been able to do it. I've been amazed with how well he picks things up."
With Brandon Marshall the team's new No. 1 wideout, Jeffery will be given an opportunity to claim the starting spot on the opposite side of the field. Yet he'll have to beat out both Earl Bennett and Devin Hester for the position.
"Devin and Earl? They don't fear anybody. Why would they?" Drake said. "I promise you Devin is not reading press clippings about Alshon Jeffery, but I bet Alshon Jeffery is reading press clippings about Devin Hester. Devin Hester don't give a crap. He just wants to go out there and play. And let me tell you something about Devin Hester, you got to know how I feel about him: All we've got to do is use him. That's all we have to do, and you'll see what kind of player he is, period."
Marshall also recently expressed confidence in Hester.
"Everyone is tweeting about Alshon, which is a great addition for us; Earl, of course we all know what he can do in the slot; and Matt [Forte], he's one of the best in the business," Marshall said on ESPN 1000 The Waddle and Silvy Show. "But I have never been around a receiver, never seen a receiver, who runs routes like Devin Hester does outside.
"His hands are soft. He has all the skills to be a great, a Pro Bowl receiver. Not a punt returner, we all know what he can do there, but a Pro Bowl receiver. Honestly, I think he's going to have a better year than me this year. I just don't think he's ever been in a an environment and situation, offensively, that caters to him as a player."
WR Devin Hester
Yet Jeffery has a different skill set than Hester, who hasn't proven he can handle full-time duties as a receiver, and still perform at a high level as a kick returner, despite having played five seasons already at the position. More likely, the Bears will limit Hester's snaps on offense.
"In order for him to be effective we don't need him out there for that many plays. We need to have that package and Mike Tice will, I promise you. And when he's out there, put the ball in his hands," Drake said.
Realistically, Bennett is the bigger roadblock for Jeffery. Bennett is an outstanding possession receiver, in whom Jay Cutler already has full confidence. Yet he may be better served out of the slot. So if Jeffery can continue to build on what he did this weekend, he has an opportunity to start come Week 1. But he's going to have to truly stand out in training camp if that's to happen.
"What we'll do is bring Alshon along," said Drake. "We can't just take Alshon and throw him in there. It doesn't work that way. With some guys it does, and if he's ready, then we're rolling, if he's not, then we'll get him in there when he is ready to do the things he's capable of doing.
"There's some depth. The guy's got to fight. Competition breeds success and I really do believe we've got some competition around here. If you want to play, go out and make plays, do things the right way, and when the ball's in the air, go get it."
If Jeffery steps up to the plate and claims the starter's role, and Tice can get the most out of Bennett and Hester in the slot, Drake sees no reason this passing attack can't be one of the best in the NFC.
"We've got two giraffes outside and some cheetahs inside. So I'm looking forward to it, looking forward to those guys doing things they're capable of."
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.