The Chicago Bears have reportedly ruled out placing the franchise tag on WR Alshon Jeffery for the second season in a row.
The tag for Jeffery in 2017 would be $17.5 million, which would make him the highest paid receiver in the NFL next season. That's clearly not a price GM Ryan Pace is willing to pay.
Rewarding a receiver who has missed 11 games the past two seasons -- four of which were due to a PED suspension -- and who hasn't had a good NFL season since 2014, would not be a wise move. Jeffery hasn't earned that type of money and if the two sides fail to come to a long-term agreement before June, the Bears would be forced to pay him that egregiously large contract.
Yet by taking the franchise tag off the table, the Bears lose all leverage in long-term negotiations.
Jeffery is a two-time Pro Bowl receiver who in 2013 and 2014 combined for 174 catches, 2,554 receiving yards and 17 TDs. He's currently the record holder for the top two receiving games in franchise history and, when healthy, has proven to be a dominant force who can take over the passing attack.
So why would Jeffery accept what will surely be a reduced offer from the Bears before testing the open market? There are a number of receiver-needy teams who would love a 6-3 wideout with his skill set, particularly on deep balls.
Surely there is at least one team out there that believes a No. 1 receiver is the final piece to the championship puzzle. If two or three teams start bidding for his services, he'll end up as one of the highest paid receivers in the league.
Jeffery, as well as his agent, understand the situation. He's an accomplished 27-year-old receiver who is about to enter his prime. In today's NFL, where a third big contract is guaranteed to no one, Jeffery wants to get paid, and rightfully so.
So unless he's willing to accept a hometown discount to play for a 3-13 team that hasn't made the playoffs in six years, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Jeffery signs a long-term deal with the Bears before testing the market.
And once other teams start throwing around huge contract numbers, he'll be all but gone.
The ramifications of this decision are huge.
If Jeffery bolts, then Pace will have let arguably his best player leave without getting anything in return. Sure, there's a chance the Bears might get a sixth-round compensatory pick if another team pays Jeffery over-the-top money, but with so many roster needs heading into this off-season, Pace will likely offset Jeffery's salary with his own big free-agent signings.
If Jeffery walks for nothing and the Bears win just four games next season, it could very well be Pace's last year in Chicago. That's a reality staring him in the face, so with roughly 10 days before the start of free agency, there's a chance Pace may reconsider his options with Jeffery.
If not, then the teams moves forward with an extremely sketchy group of receivers.
Eddie Royal will very likely be a cap casualty and Marquess Wilson is due to become a free agent. If they both depart, then it further depletes the wideout depth.
That would put an enormous amount of pressure on former first rounder Kevin White, who has played just four games his first two years in the league and is coming off his second leg surgery. That's like putting all your eggs into a basket made of wet newspaper.
Cameron Meredith showed a lot of promise last season and nearly eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark. He's a positive but if White can't stay healthy and Meredith regresses, the Bears will be in serious trouble at the receiver position.
As such, if Jeffery signs elsewhere, expect Pace to be aggressive in adding depth at receiver through both free agency and the draft. That might not equate to a big-name signing or a high-round draft pick but it's unlikely he'll feel 100-percent comfortable with White, Meredith, Daniel Braverman and Josh Bellamy as his top four pass catchers.
If the receiving corps is gutted, that would also have a negative effect on the young quarterback most believe the Bears will select in this year's draft. If that rookie is called into action in 2017 but has no one to throw to, what are his odds of success?
That would also impact Jordan Howard, Chicago's Pro Bowl running back. If opposing defenses know that Chicago's receivers are mediocre at best, what would stop them from loading the box to shut down Howard?
Jeffery is not worth $17.5 million. That much we can all agree on.
Yet the decision to let him test the open market could have a markedly negative effect on the Bears in the both short- and long-term, and could ultimately decide Pace's fate with the organization.
If Pace is willing to let Jeffery leave for nothing, he had better have a iron-clad Plan B in place, otherwise he won't be around in 2018.