By Chris Emma–
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (CBS) — A life-sized mannequin greeted Bears general manager Ryan Pace on Wednesday as he entered the NFL Combine.
It wore a Bears jersey and Alshon Jeffery’s No. 17, with a void left for the head. Part of the fan festivities in the Circle City, this mannequin represented one of Pace’s greatest challenge in this critical offseason.
Pace must find somebody to fill that void, whether it’s Jeffery or somebody else.
The Bears have chosen not to tender the franchise tag on Jeffery, who’s now set to become an unrestricted free agent and top receiver on the market. Pace has been in negotiations with Jeffery’s representatives, led by Tory Dandy of CAA Sports, and is hoping to work out a deal.
Jeffery’s party seeks for him to be paid like a top receiver, while the Bears aren’t on the same page in those negotiations. The franchise tag would have paid Jeffery more than $17 million, the kind of money elite receivers earn.
Ultimately, the Bears have decided to let Jeffery explore his worth.
“Sometimes when you can’t come to a common ground with a player and an agent, sometimes it’s necessary to kind of test the market to determine that player’s value,” Pace said. “That’s really where we’re at. He’s a good player, and we’ll see how it plays out. But I think there are certain instances where testing the market is a necessary part of the process.”
Certainly, the Bears don’t get better by losing Jeffery. Given their receiver uncertainty with 2015 first-round pick Kevin White’s injury problems, having a proven talent like Jeffery makes their offense better. But the Bears and Jeffery value his worth differently.
Pace has kept an ongoing dialogue with Dandy and plans for conversations this week in Indianapolis.
It was a year ago that Pace and Dandy also spoke at the Combine, with their negotiations breaking down and leading to the Bears to utilize the franchise tag. Jeffery followed with a 2016 season in which he had 52 catches for 821 yards and two touchdowns while missing four games due to a performance-enhancing drug suspension.
“These contract negotiations can be complicated,” Pace said. “We’re at a point right now where this is kind of where it is. Us tagging him two years in a row really wasn’t an option for us. We’ll see how it plays out right now.”
Bears coach John Fox best described the situation with Jeffery, pointing to the “impartial evaluation” his regime has seen of him in two seasons. Jeffery hasn’t proved to Pace and Fox that he’s worthy of the money an elite receiver is due.
The Steelers had no problem paying Antonio Brown a record deal, but he has 481 catches and 43 touchdowns in the last four seasons, including 106 catches for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2016.
Like Julio Jones and Dez Bryant before him, Brown showed his worth. Jeffery is asking to join that company.
“It comes down to the market value,” Fox said. “It’s like walking into a store right now at this time of year and there’s no price tags. We kind of develop that moving forward. My experience has been that’s a very fluid process.”
The Bears will continue their dialogue with Jeffery’s side through next week, when 31 other teams can begin negotiations. Then, Jeffery will finally get his chance to be appraised, and his value will soon be known.
How that compares to the Bears’ evaluation of Jeffery remains to be seen, but one could presume a bidding war will drive the price high. Pace will be waiting, hoping he can still reach an agreement with Jeffery. That window is likely closed.
Pace will likely soon have a Jeffery-sized void to fill.