Bears, Alshon Jeffery on the clock as franchise-tag period opens Tuesday


Bears, Alshon Jeffery on the clock as franchise-tag period opens Tuesday

As of 3 p.m. on Tuesday the Bears can assure themselves the services of Alshon Jeffery for 2016. More or less.

The option available for the Pro Bowl wide receiver is the franchise tag accorded each NFL team under terms negotiated as part of the collective bargaining agreement. It would guarantee Jeffery one year at $14.5 million but is a situation that typically neither the player nor the team like. Indeed, players have held out in protest over being tagged.

Teams have until 3 p.m. on Mar. 1 to put either a franchise tag or transition tag in place. The two sides have until mid July to reach agreement on a long-term contract or the tag remains in place.

[SHOP: Get your Bears gear right here]

Last year the Dallas Cowboys placed their franchise tag on Dez Bryant and the Denver Broncos used theirs on Demaryius Thomas. Both wideouts signed $70 million contracts hours before the July deadline.

Players dislike the tag because, while it pays well for one year, the amount is typically less than the guaranteed money that comes with a longer-term deal. Teams dislike the tag because it loads the entire amount into the season at hand with no flexibility to amortize the lump sum.

The underlying issue with any long-term contracts for Jeffery is his injury riddled 2015 season, missing most of training camp and preseason in addition to seven games during the season. But the Bears have not given indications that they now regard him as injury prone and a health risk, and they have made changes in the staffing and programs involved with player health.

“The previous two season he’d been healthy and highly productive,” said GM Ryan Pace in his season-ending remarks. “He was frustrated by his injuries. We were frustrated by his injuries. We got to get a better grasp of that. Part of the evaluation of a player is his injuries and his availability. We’ll take that into account.”

[MORE BEARS: Matt Forte situation means looking beyond simple conclusions]

The tag, when signed by the player, guarantees one year at the average of the top five salaries at that player’s position. If the tag is the “exclusive” option, the one-year salary is based on the current season. Exclusive-rights players cannot negotiate with any other teams.

The more common “non-exclusive” option is based on the average of the top five at the position for the previous five seasons. If the player signs with another team, the tagging team has the option of matching the deal or receiving the signing team’s next two first-round draft choices.

The Bears used non-exclusive franchise tags in 2012 on running back Matt Forte and in 2013 on defensive tackle Henry Melton. The Bears were able to negotiate a long-term deal (four years) with Forte but lost Melton to Dallas in 2014.

They used the exclusive-rights franchise tag in 2007 on Lance Briggs. The perennial Pro Bowl linebacker played that year under the tag, then agreed to a six-year contract in March 2008.

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday.