Alshon Jeffery is by far the most talented offensive player set to hit the market this offseason. He finished the year with a 94.2 overall grade (1–100 scale), behind only Antonio Brown and Julio Jones among wide receivers. If Jeffery had stayed healthy throughout the year, he quite possibly could have challenged Brown’s record-setting season.
The Bears will be desperate to keep hold of their most talented playmaker, with their offensive coordinator already departed for the head coaching vacancy in Miami. After Brandon Marshall skipped town last offseason, the Bears need to retain their leading wideout regardless of the financial implications, especially considering the scarcity of alternative options. Scrolling through our 2016 free agency tracker, it's quickly obvious that Jeffery is the only unrestricted free agent WR with an overall grade above 80.0 set to shake free.
With the WR market fairly dry, however, it's possible another team could go big for Jeffery—beyond what Chicago is willing to spend for a player that missed seven games in 2015. Before we dive into those possible team's, let's review Jeffery's year.
Jeffery’s season in context
Despite taking the field for just 516 snaps in 2015, Jeffery recorded PFF's seventh-best pure receiving grade. In new our new grading system (0-100 scale), which accounts for playing time, the Bears’ wideout finished with a 94.5 grade, only just behind Julio Jones (94.6) and Antonio Brown (96.5). Jeffery caught 54 passes for 807 yards and four touchdowns.
While he’s unlikely to run away from defensive backs (four broken tackles) he has reliable hands (just two drops) and is an unquestioned monster when the ball is in the air. Chicago had a lot of success calling back-shoulder fades for Cutler; those plays are almost impossible to stop when executed correctly. Jeffery’s catch radius is so large and he uses his frame so effectively to box out defensive backs that 20-yard completions seemed routine between the pair. The Bears could run a shot play with little risk, and Cutler could adjust depending on the coverage. Simply put, few NFL receivers are capable of dominating games the way Jeffery can.
Short of praying sophomore Kevin White is a stud, the Bears really have little option but to offer Jeffery carte blanche in negotiations. White failed to register a single snap as a rookie after suffering a fractured shin. With White and Jeffery initially sidelined, Marquess Wilson recorded a team-high 650 snaps at the position. He ended the year as our 66th-ranked wide receiver, recording a 69.8 grade.
Opposite him, the Bears were forced to use Marc Mariani more frequently. The slot receiver and specialist returner actually flashed some promise with the added opportunity, finishing the year with a 74.0 grade. He’s also set to become a free agent as well, however. Mariani certainly offered more than Eddie Royal (52.5 grade) and Josh Bellamy (61.0), who both struggled.
Thankfully, for the Bears they have a projected $50 million in cap room, likely enough to retain Jeffery. He’ll be looking for a deal similar to those handed to Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant (five years, $70 million, $35 million guaranteed).
Should something unforeseen happen and Jeffery ends up hitting the market, most NFL front offices will likely be having a conversation. A few teams stand out as more likely than others:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs have almost as much projected cap space as the Bears, and that’s before making a decision on Vincent Jackson and the $12 million he’s owed in 2016. Jason Licht carried on the tradition of targeting physically dominant prototypes at the wide receiver position by drafting Mike Evans with his first draft pick as GM (seventh overall). Expect the Bucs to make a hard play at Jeffery if he hits free agency.
Marcus Mariota had a solid rookie season, but the Titans’ offense struggled mightily in 2015. The overall unit needs a boost, especially at wide receiver, where Harry Douglas (54.8) took the majority of snaps. Kendall Wright was slowed by injuries, while Justin Hunter had another disappointing campaign and is starting to look like he might be a bust. Dorial Green-Beckham (73.6) had a solid rookie year but can’t be relied upon. The Titans need serious investment on the offensive side of the ball if Marcus Mariota is to succeed.
Assuming the No. 2 overall pick is invested in a QB, the Browns will need to provide weapons for their young signal-caller. None of the Browns’ wide receivers who played more than 200 snaps graded positively in 2015. In fact, the unit combined for a -23.9 cumulative grade (0.0 is considered average). Hue Jackson needs a vertical threat on the perimeter to manipulate a numbers advantage in the run game, and the Browns have the cap space to make it happen.