During Sunday’s tragicomic loss to the Vikings, I tweeted that Alshon Jeffery (again, NOT “Jeffries”) “Might be a top-10 WR.” After I sent that out, Alshon proceeded to make one of the most impressive catches I’ve seen from a Chicago receiver; indeed, one of the most impressive catches I’ve seen from anyone. I could watch it all day. (In fact, I’ve been watching it the entire time I’ve been writing.) As impressive as that catch was, though, it’s only one play. Has Alshon done enough to be considered a top ten receiver?
First of all, I should say this: it doesn’t really matter. It’s fun to think about, but he’s very, very good already. If he’s not one of the ten best receivers in the NFL, he’s certainly one of the fifteen best. Combined with Brandon Marshall’s established excellence, they represent arguably the best duo of receivers in the league. (It’s growing less and less arguable.) Which is remarkable, when you consider that when the Bears hired Phil Emery, he took over a team that had featured Devin Hester, Roy Williams, and Johnny Knox at wideout. Knox was actually a good prospect (and indeed, he’d be a great weapon as a third receiver on this team) but he suffered a horrific career-ending spinal injury against Seattle in 2011. Hester was always miscast as a featured wide-receiver, and Roy Williams was, well, bad.
In his first offseason in charge, GM Phil Emery proceeded to overhaul the position. He sent two third-round picks to the Miami Dolphins for All-Pro Brandon Marshall, a player with documented personal demons but an unquestioned surplus of talent. Emery then drafted Alshon Jeffery in the second round; Jeffery had been projected earlier in the year as a potential first round choice, but doubts about his conditioning and work ethic pushed him down draft boards. The Bears traded their second and fifth round selections to the Rams for the second round pick they used to draft him. So in one offseason, Phil Emery essentially turned a second round pick, two thirds, and a fifth rounder into one of the best receiver combinations in the NFL. That’s an incredible use of mostly non-premium assets.
The two players complement each other wonderfully, and in many ways they’re mirror images; both are big, long targets with impressive athleticism. Marshall is the savvier of the two players, with more precision to his routes, while the 23 year-old Jeffery maintains a burst of breakaway speed that Marshall seems to have lost. One of the hallmarks of the Trestman offense has been the constant threat of an end-around to Jeffery; he’s actually totaled 115 yards on 14 carries this season, good for an 8.2 yards per carry average. (It’s been so effective that Jeffery is often sent in motion as a decoy to set up an interior run, or a run to the opposite side.) In terms of attracting defensive attention, Marshall’s presence is an undeniable benefit for Jeffery, and with Alshon taking off like he has that relationship should grow even more symbiotic.
Last season, Jeffery caught just 24 balls for 367 yards. Not exactly eye-popping, and certainly not the stat-line of a top ten receiver. So what’s changed?
1.) Health: Jeffery only played in ten games last season; he’s started every contest this year. His injuries last year (a broken hand and a knee injury) have not proven to be harbingers of poor health. And I don’t think there’s a Bears fan alive who doesn’t understand all too well the importance of good health.
2.) Development: Alshon was a raw product coming into the league, having played only three seasons of college football. Wide receivers going from college to the pros often have one of the tougher transitions; that’s why you’ll often see players make long strides from year one to year two. (Along with Jeffery, Atlanta’s Julio Jones was a prime example of this phenomenon; Josh Gordon of the Browns is making a similar case this season.) Jeffery seems to be adjusting very nicely, as that GIF attests; watch his right hand as he reaches the five-yard line. It’s nearly imperceptible, but he uses it to slightly nudge Chris Cook, without extending it to where it might draw an offensive pass-interference penalty. (Cook was so mad about that push that he grabbed an official twice, resulting in an ejection.) Last season, Jeffery was memorably whistled for three interference penalties against the Packers in week 15. I believe he’s adjusted to the rules.
3.) Coaching: This is the big one. The entire offense has been better under Marc Trestman. His ability to put offensive players in positions to succeed has been striking, and a night and day difference from Mike Tice’s efforts last season. This is not to say that Jeffery isn’t a talented player; look at that GIF again. That’s not a “system” receiver. That is an immensely talented athlete. But great coaching gives players chances to flourish, and there’s no better example than Alshon.
So, having covered all of that: is he a top ten receiver? He’s currently fourth in yards and eighth in receptions, so that’s a good start. He’s also just 23, which factors in heavily. Evaluating based on who is playing the best football right now, I think it’s safe to say he’s in the top ten, or just outside. And to take a different approach, which receivers would you most like to have for the next five seasons? Calvin Johnson is on his own plane of existence, but things get murkier after that. I don’t think there are ten guys I’d rather have on the Bears.
What do you think?