The player: Alshon Jeffery, WR, Bears
The SI rank — Beller: No. 9 WR, No. 17 overall | Fitz: No. 9 WR, No. 19 overall
The consensus rank: No. 9 WR, No. 18 overall
Plagued by hamstring, calf and groin injuries, Jeffery played only nine games last season. He finished the year with 54 catches for 807 yards and four TDs but was on pace to accrue more than 90 catches and more than 1,400 yards over a full 16-game regular season. As recently noted by Kevin Fishbain of Pro Football Weekly, injuries limited Jeffery to 35 snaps in one game and 30 in another, but in the seven games where Jeffery got a full complement of snaps, he averaged 7.1 catches for 110.6 yards.
Jeffery averaged 87 catches, 1,277 yards and 8.5 TDs over the 2013–2014 seasons despite having to share the ball with Brandon Marshall, who soaked up 161 receptions and 268 targets over that span. But as was the case last season whenever he was healthy, Jeffery is the alpha dog among Chicago’s pass catchers and will get all the targets he can handle. Marshall left two years ago. TE Martellus Bennett, who caught 143 balls for Chicago over the last two years, has been traded to New England. And RB Matt Forte, who averaged 60.9 catches over his eight seasons with the Bears, is now with the Jets.
Measuring 6-foot-3 and 216 pounds, Jeffery has prototypical size for an NFL receiver. And in any debate about who has the best set of hands in the NFL, Jeffery certainly belongs in the conversation. He so routinely snares balls thrown well outside the frame of his body that you’d swear his mitts were coated with caramel.
Concerns? Well, it’s somewhat alarming that Jeffery was beset with three different soft-tissue injuries last season, though he didn’t miss a game in either of the two previous seasons. There’s also the possibility that young WR Kevin White could eat into Jeffery’s target share. Selected seventh overall in the 2015 draft, White has a size-speed combination similar to that of Julio Jones. But White missed his entire rookie season due to a stress fracture in his tibia, and with his absence of NFL experience, it’s unlikely he’ll put a significant dent in Jeffery’s workload 2016.
Perhaps the biggest worry is the departure of Adam Gase, who coordinated the Bears’ offense last year but is now head coach of the Dolphins. Gase did an admirable job last season with fairly limited resources, coaxing a solid season out of mercurial QB Jay Cutler. Gase will be replaced by Dowell Loggains, the Bears’ quarterbacks coach last season. Loggains was the Titans’ offensive coordinator in 2013 and for part of 2012, and Tennessee’s offense was largely impotent during his tenure. Gase was somehow able to curb Cutler’s worst on-field instincts, and if Loggains can’t do the same, it might be hard for Jeffery to post numbers befitting a true WR1.
On the bright side, Jeffery is probably due to see more targets near the goal line. He was targeted only four times inside the 10-yard line last season, according to Pro Football Reference—a preposterously low number even when you factor in all the games Jeffery missed. Over the 2013-2014 seasons, Jeffery saw 30 targets inside the 10 and scored eight TDs from that range. A bump in targets close to the goal line should perk up Jeffery’s TD total.
It’s also worth noting that the Bears have a soft non-divisional schedule this year. They’ll face everyone from the NFC East and AFC South, plus the 49ers and Buccaneers.
And for those of you who don’t mind taking a stroll down Narrative Street, consider that the Bears placed the franchise tag on Jeffery but elected not to offer him a long-term contract extension before the July 15 deadline for doing so. Playing on a one-year deal, perhaps Jeffery will be hell-bent on proving that he deserves the sort of lucrative long-term deal that Julio Jones, A.J. Green and Dez Bryant were all given last summer.
As a WR1 candidate, Jeffery ticks nearly all the boxes. He has terrific size, an extraordinary catch radius and one of the best pairs of hands in the league. And as is the case with WR1 types such as Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr., Jeffery is the only proven high-volume pass catcher on his team. If he played in a better overall offense, Jeffery might be a top-three receiver. As it is, he belongs in the top 10. If Jeffery plays a full 16-game season, he should be good for about 90 catches, 1,300 yards and 10 TDs.