Heading into his junior season at South Carolina, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery was widely considered a potential Top 15 draft pick. He was coming off a sophomore season in which he caught 88 passes for 1,517 yards and nine touchdowns.
Yet a quarterback change early in the campaign derailed the Gamecock's passing attack, forcing head coach Steve Spurrier to adopt a run-heavy approach on offense. As such, Jeffery's numbers took a big hit. He ended his junior campaign with just 49 catches for 762 yards and eight touchdowns.
Rumblings then began about his weight, which reportedly ballooned to more than 230 pounds. His perceived lack of top-end speed also worried scouts.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Jeffery showed up considerably lighter, down to 215 pounds. It was a testament to his dedication but it ended up raising even more questions. No one was truly sure how losing 20 pounds would affect a receiver that relied heavily on his size to shield off defenders in college. His decision not to run the 40-yard dash also raised red flags.
In essence, no one was really sure what to expect from Jeffery heading into the 2012 draft, which is why he fell into the second round. When Chicago Bears GM Phil Emery saw Jeffery sliding, he made the move to get him. Emery traded a fifth-round pick to move up six spots in the second round to draft Jeffery 45th overall.
WR Alshon Jeffery
Rob Grabowski/US Presswire
Since then, he's been nothing but impressive. He has demonstrated outstanding hands and leaping ability, which has made him nearly unstoppable in the red zone during training camp. He has deceptive speed and the weight loss hasn't hurt his ability to be physical when the ball is in the air.
During each of Chicago's first two preseason games, Jeffery led the team in both catches and yards. His three catches for 62 yards Saturday against the Redskins gives him a preseason total of seven catches for 97 yards, best on the team.
Jeffery talked after the game about learning to adjust on the fly during live NFL action.
"It was fun out there tonight. I worked as hard as I could to get things accomplished, but most of all, I just tried to play my role," he said. "Each time you face a different team, a new set of challenges is going to appear. The defense is easier or harder, it all depends on who is covering you. It's my job to adjust accordingly and to be effective.
"I found the Redskins' defense to be a challenge. Any time you face an unfamiliar team I think that will be the case. My job is to learn how to overcome that, to pick up things while I am on the field that will make me successful. Each time I play against a different team, I am adding things in terms of technique and approach. It's important to be able to adjust quickly to what is in front of you. That's how you succeed."
Obviously Jeffery has been soaking in what Chicago's coaches have been feeding him. His transition to the pro game has been almost seamless and it's the main reason he continues to get more and more reps with the first team.
"I definitely enjoyed the time out there with the first team," Jeffery said. "It's a strong group of guys, excellent athletes who are teaching me things all of the time. As a rookie my job is to be as productive as possible every minute I am out on the field. When I am not out there, I watch everything. You'd be surprised how much you can learn by watching the best players do their thing."
"It was good to have Jay [Cutler] out there tonight, but no matter who the quarterback might be at any given time, it's the same feeling for me as a receiver. I know I have to be alert and catch that ball. I was hired to deliver and that is what I plan to do."
So far that's exactly what he's done. His two preseason performances have been the best of any wideout on the club.
"That's a good start but I know I can improve upon those figures. Just having the opportunity to be out there and make those catches is a blessing. I think it is all in God's plan, and I'm grateful just to be a part of it."
Jeffery's longest catch of the night was a 34-yarder where he beat man coverage then broke a tackle to pick up yards after the catch.
He also got into a pushing a match with DeAngelo Hall and ended up ripping off the cornerback's helmet.
WR Alshon Jeffery
Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
"I guess I was just in the wrong place and the wrong time and got a little carried away," said Jeffery. "It was a rookie mistake. I wasn't thinking, only reacting to the situation."
The soft-spoken Jeffery is typically mild mannered off the field but a switch seems to flip once he steps on the game turf. During his final collegiate game, the 2012 Capital One Bowl, Jeffery was ejected in the third quarter for fighting with Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard – although Jeffery was still named the game's MVP.
It's always good to bring a fiery spirit onto the field, especially for a rookie, but his actions against Hall cost the Bears 15 yards, which irked his coaches.
"When I went over of the sidelines, the coaches came over and told me to play smart and not do things like that any more. They were extremely clear with me about that. Then I was left on the sidelines for a few plays to think things over. I understand that my penalty hurt the team. It wasn't malicious. I'm not that type of player. I just got caught up in the heat of the moment and I've learned from that experience."
While Jeffery has a lot of room for improvement, particularly in his route running, his development so far has been nothing short of remarkable. At this pace, it won't be surprising if he takes over the starting split end role from Devin Hester before the Week 6 bye.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of 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.