The Chicago Bears placed the franchise tag on wide receiver Alshon Jeffery shortly before the start of the 2016 NFL season.
He was tagged on Feb. 29 and signed his tender a week later. Since then, the Bears and Jeffery's agent have been working to find common ground on a long-term contract, yet nothing has materialized.
Under the CBA, the Bears have until tomorrow at 3 p.m. to sign Jeffery to a long-term deal, otherwise he plays this year under the franchise tag and will become a free agent next season.
As I write this, the Bears have a little more than 24 hours to lock up the team's best player or risk losing him next year.
This is a scenario where it's easy to understand the stance of both parties, as each makes a compelling case.
Jeffery wants to be paid like an elite NFL wide receiver. He's made the Pro Bowl in two of his first four NFL seasons, posting stat lines of 89-1,421-7 in 2013 and 85-1,133-10 in 2014. Even in an injury riddled 2015 campaign, he still finished 8th in the league in average yards per game (89.7).
He set the franchise record for single-game receiving yards in 2013, with 218 yards on 10 catches, only to shatter that record seven weeks later with 249 receiving yards on 12 catches. In 2015, he tied a franchise record with a streak of three straight 100-yard receiving games.
Jeffery's highlight reel is filled with eye-popping plays in which he outplayed defenders to make game-changing catches. Since 2013, he has 3,361 receiving yards, which is 9th most in the NFL.
Based on his numbers, and him passing the eye test week in and week out the past four years, it's obvious Jeffery is one of the best receivers in the NFL and clearly in the Top 10 at his position. As such, he wants to be paid at a commensurate level.
Yet the Bears are clearly balking, due in large part to his injury history. Jeffery missed six games his rookie season, then dealt with three different soft tissues injuries that cost him seven games last year and landed him on IR.
From the team's standpoint, does it make sense to dump elite cash on a player who could not stay healthy last year due to three separate injuries?
Jeffery's rebuttal is that he didn't miss a single game in 2013 and 2014 combined, and that his six games missed in 2012 was due to a freak injury (no one is "prone" to broken hands). From his standpoint, the team is focusing entirely on 2015, while disregarding everything he did previous.
The Bears might reply "hey, you're not getting any younger", and on and on.
So it's understandable how the two sides came to this impasse, but at this point, all that matters is the long-term deal.
If Jeffery plays 2016 on the franchise tag, I can say with great certainty it will be his last year in Chicago, particularly if the Bears don't have a winning record this year. Which is what makes tomorrow's deadline so important. The next 24 hours will decide Jeffery's future in the Windy City.
Some have reported, citing "sources", that the two sides are still far apart and that Jeffery will all but assuredly play on the tag this year. Clearly the negotiation process has been rocky but it's not yet time to throw in the towel.
Remember, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Justin Houston and Stephen Gostkowski all signed long-term deals just hours before last year's deadline.
Posturing through the media is common when elite players reach a stalemate with their respective teams, yet deadlines spur action and that could easily happen before 3 p.m. tomorrow.
Will it happen? I can't say for certain. Should it happen? Absolutely.
One season does not make a player and in no way should 2015 be the only year taken into account when considering Jeffery's price tag. He's worth the money and the Bears have cash to spend. According to OverTheCap, GM Ryan Pace has $22 million in cap space at his disposal, which already includes the $14.59 million tag. Realistically, a long-term deal would actually add money to the cap, as Jeffery's first year wouldn't likely reach the $15 million plateau. So money is not an issue here.
Playing hardball with your best player is a recipe for disaster, one in which the team rarely wins. This is especially so for the Bears, who have nothing but question marks on the wide receiver depth chart. If you alienate Jeffery and Kevin White is a bust, what then, spend another Top 10 pick on a wide receiver?
Here's a history lesson: the last Top 10 receiver to win a Super Bowl was Plaxico Burress, drafted 8th overall in 2000. If you push Alshon out the door and the one-year collegiate wonder doesn't pan out, and you use two of your first three Top 10 picks on wide receivers, Pace will quickly go the route of Matt Millen into obscurity.
These are scenarios the Bears have surely considered. Sure, they'd be happy to revisit Alshon's contract after a 2016 season in which he proves he can stay healthy. The problem is, if he blows up this year, Jeffery will be targeted by 15-20 other teams and will likely bolt to the highest bidder.
Is that a risk the Bears are willing to take just because Jeffery had one injury marred season? We'll know in 24 hours.null