By Chris Emma–
(CBS) Bears general manager Ryan Pace is on the clock.
A vital offseason has started with two monumental decisions that will be tied together — preparing to part ways with eight-year starting quarterback Jay Cutler and now letting top receiver Alshon Jeffery hit the open market.
The latter decision, as first reported by Ian Rapoport of NFL Network on Monday, comes as the Bears decided they won’t tender the franchise tag to Jeffery for a second straight offseason. The price is steep at more than $17 million.
In turn, the Bears are allowing Jeffery to become a hot commodity on the market and one of the most coveted free agent receivers in recent memory. A player of Jeffery’s caliber in his prime at 27 doesn’t often hit free agency. Though their reasoning is fair, the Bears don’t get better by losing Jeffery.
Jeffery followed an injury-riddled 2015 campaign with a healthy-but-unfulfilling 2016 season. He posted 52 catches for 821 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games, missing four contests due to a performance-enhancing drug suspension. Jeffery didn’t show what the Bears hoped to see after tendering the tag last offseason.
Pace didn’t see Jeffery as a top receiver, and now Jeffery will likely get paid like one in the coming weeks after several years worth of opportunity to negotiate didn’t lead to a long-term deal with the Bears. Technically speaking, Jeffery can re-sign with the Bears, though that doesn’t seem likely.
Pace has all but cut ties with Cutler, as he’s shopping him around the league. There’s no turning back from that, with a divorce expected soon, likely by way of release.
So, what’s next?
The Bears now have a dire need on their depth chart, with little certainty at the receiver position. Cameron Meredith’s strong season offers some comfort to let Jeffery walk, but there are health concerns surrounding Kevin White and Eddie Royal. With White, there’s no guarantee he’ll ever be the player whom Pace trusted with the seventh overall pick in the 2015 draft.
Consider also that this isn’t New England, where receivers can be picked up off the street and paired with the greatest of all time, Tom Brady. The Bears are looking to find their future at quarterback and are now in need of receivers to complement their next young arm.
Whether it’s Jimmy Garoppolo or Kirk Cousins, Deshaun Watson or DeShone Kizer as the signal-caller, the Bears need receivers. They can enter 2017 holding hope in what White can be, though they shouldn’t rely on it. Royal is a steady player when healthy, but he has missed 14 games in two seasons with the Bears. They sure should be grateful to have Meredith.
First comes filling voids through free agency, and the Bears have plenty on their roster. They will need to secure the secondary first, but now receiver is a crucial position as well. Terrelle Pryor, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garçon are among the top available receivers.
Perhaps the Bears could look to their No. 3 pick to find a potentially elite receiver, with Clemson’s Mike Williams looking to be the best available. They could also look at options in the middle rounds such as include Senior Bowl standouts Cooper Kupp of Eastern Washington and Zay Jones of East Carolina.
Pace and the Bears brass arrive at the NFL Combine this week looking to gain a greater grasp on their future at both quarterback and receiver. They’ll likely conduct conversations with the Patriots for Garoppolo, have dialogue with Jeffery’s representatives and explore options in free agency. The scouting continues for this deep rookie class at receiver.
But Pace’s first action in Indianapolis will be meeting with reporters Wednesday morning, explaining his plan at quarterback and receiver.
He has to get this right.