By Chris Emma–
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — Lining up out wide for the Bears at Tuesday’s mandatory minicamp was top receiver Alshon Jeffery — finally.
After missing the entirety of the Bears’ offseason workout program and each of their practices in OTAs, Jeffery rejoined his teammates looking to be in top form. Even coach John Fox was impressed with what he saw.
“It’s good to have him here,” Fox said. “He looks to be in good shape. He’s ready to roll.”
Now in his second season in Chicago, Fox is constantly working to build that family atmosphere around his team. Bears guard Kyle Long said he can feel it, whether it’s a dinner with the offensive linemen or just a conversation in the locker room. Jeffery opted to stay away from Halas Hall ever since the 2015 season ended — even twice coming to Chicago for promotional appearances without making the trek up north to Lake Forest.
While it wasn’t a good look for Jeffery, his absence wasn’t intended to indicate displeasure. Jeffery’s move was to protect himself.
“I felt like it was the best situation for me,” Jeffery said.
Maintenance is key during the course of a long football season. Late last season, Fox made the claim that the only way to avoid injuries in football is not playing football. That’s what Jeffery chose during this critical offseason, one in which he begins fighting for a long-term deal.
Jeffery opted to stay behind in Miami with personal trainer David Alexander, who works with stars like LeBron James. Instead of joining the Bears in Fox’s controlled practices, Jeffery stayed busy within his own workout program, attempting to maintain good health.
After all, injuries have come often in the Bears’ practices under Fox. Jeffery suffered a groin injury during a walk-through last August that cost him the remainder of the preseason. Second-year receiver Kevin White’s season-ending shin injury first surfaced during OTAs last May.
Former Bears captain and safety Antrel Rolle lost the rest of his 2015 during a walk-through injury leading up to the game with the Broncos last November.
“The surface had a whole lot to do with it,” Rolle said in a May interview on 670 The Score, referencing the playing surface at Halas Hall. “You know what I mean, it happens. It happens. It’s the surface we’ve been practicing on all year long. A lot of guys slip, not just myself. It’s unfortunate I had to deal with that injury.”
Between a perceived bad surface at Halas Hall and a practice style that’s seen unexpected injuries, Bears players have been forced to consider the risk of taking the field.
“The conditions we’re put around in football, those are just condition we have to play in, whether we’re on field turf or on grass,” Bears cornerback Tracy Porter said. “We can’t pick where we’re going to play. We can’t pick the weather and what it’s going to be. We just have to go out and play. That’s the nature of the sport.”
However, during the voluntary workout period, players do get their pick. Linebacker Pernell McPhee continues his own workouts after an offseason knee scope. While it doesn’t appear positive for the team-building process, some Bears like Jeffery may be better suited working away from Lake Forest.
Jeffery wasn’t away from the Bears because of a contract dispute, his agent, Tory Dandy, confirmed. Instead, Jeffery was working in a personalized program that aimed to prevent injuries. Alexander helped inform Jeffery how to prepare his body for injury prevention for when he returned to Halas Hall. Jeffery even took to the cryotherapy machine after each workout.
Despite what the Bears preferred, Jeffery’s party believed it was best for him to stay in South Florida.
“When they get back to camp, there’s workouts that they have to do,” Alexander said. “Unfortunately, a lot of the workouts that pro teams develop for their players isn’t in line with what they players need.
“It didn’t allow his body to perform at the highest level. What separates our facility here is you won’t see athletes working together. Each athlete has their individualized program.”
The business side of the NFL has become ever so evident at Halas Hall. Rolle was cut after his 2015 season was marred by the injury suffered in practice. Offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod saw an injury force him out of a starting job, then was later let loose from Chicago.
Meanwhile, Jeffery remains optimistic that he can work out a long-term deal with the Bears before the July 15 deadline. An injury setback in practice would surely halt those negotiations. By staying in Miami, he protected his health and value.
“I felt it was best for me to train somewhere else,” Jeffery said.
Jeffery’s situation illustrates something each Bears player has to consider. Don’t be surprised if more players follow Jeffery’s move — even if it means missing that family atmosphere that’s growing at Halas Hall.
Until the Bears find a way to minimize injury risk in their practices, players like Jeffery can’t be blamed for protecting their value from the cruel business side of the NFL.