By Chris Emma—
(CBS) With the stink of 3-13 still fresh in their postgame locker room, Alshon Jeffery made quite the bold proclamation last Jan. 1, guaranteeing that the Bears team would win the Super Bowl this season.
The Bears had just been smacked around by the Vikings in a 38-10 loss in their season finale, and their top receiver wasn’t exactly speaking with great conviction in making his proclamation. It wasn’t just the soft tone, because Jeffery also knew well he likely wouldn’t be returning to the Bears.
Sure enough, Jeffery is now flying high with the Eagles (9-1) as a leading receiver, part of a team with legitimate Super Bowl hopes. And the Bears (3-7) are in last place once again as they travel to Philadelphia to face Jeffery’s new team Sunday.
The Eagles are thriving as quarterback Carson Wentz, the second overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, has become an MVP candidate working with Jeffery, Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor. Meanwhile, Bears rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, the second overall pick in April, is desperate for the kind of arsenal with which Wentz has prospered.
Perhaps Trubisky was watching Sunday night – fresh off a loss to the Lions – as Wentz fired a bullet to the end zone and found Jeffery fully extended to make a terrific catch. With that, Jeffery hauled in his sixth touchdown in 10 games, matching the combined touchdown total he posted in the two seasons prior with Bears general managed Ryan Pace watching.
Pace was never sold on Jeffery, whom he inherited from the previous regime. With the opportunity to lock up a tremendous talent at receiver, Pace kept waiting to see something more.
Jeffery had two standout seasons in 2013 and ’14, combining for 174 catches and 17 touchdowns while working opposite Brandon Marshall, but only problems persisted from there. He missed seven games in 2015 while dealing with four separate soft-tissue injuries. Asked to prove himself under the franchise tag last season, he stayed healthy but was dealt a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
So, the Bears allowed Jeffery to hit the open market, letting one of their most important players search for his worth.
Despite ample cap space available during free agency last March, the Bears didn’t make a major play at Jeffery, but he also didn’t get the offers of a top receiver. The Eagles offered a one-year, $14-million deal, which Jeffery accepted in part because of the opportunity to prove himself as an elite target in this league.
Jeffery has hauled in 38 of 80 targets this season, going for 567 yards and those six touchdowns. He’s second on the team in receptions, behind Ertz, and first in receiving yards. The presence of Jeffery has also benefited Agholor, who was nearly released a year ago.
Wentz has most certainly gained from adding Jeffery to the mix. In 10 games, he already has thrown nine more touchdowns than in his rookie season, and his interception percentage is down to just 1.6 percent. In 2016, Wentz was often left forcing the football to sub-par receivers, leading to mistakes. The biggest difference now is Jeffery.
Trubisky has fared about as well as can be expected through his first six starts, going 77-of-145 for 988 yards and four touchdowns to two interceptions. Whereas the Eagles were aggressive with Wentz in his rookie season, the Bears have been conservative with Trubisky, knowing he lacks playmakers at receiver.
The Bears’ hopes at receiver were hampered as Kevin White and Cam Meredith both landed on injured reserve this season after being asked to fill the void left by Jeffery. Veteran addition Markus Wheaton has just one reception on the season. Kendall Wright and Dontrelle Inman have become the key targets, but they lack the difference-making ability of Jeffery.
Jeffery is set to become a free agent once again this offseason, and the Bears will be among teams looking for answers at receivers, their greatest position of need. It’s unknown whether either side would want a reunion after this year separated. They would finally have to reach an agreement on Jeffery’s worth, and that still seems like an unlikely proposition.
When they meet again in Philadelphia on Sunday, the Bears and Jeffery will still be two sides so far apart.