Bears

Bears, Alshon Jeffery now on the contract clock after franchise tag designation

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Bears, Alshon Jeffery now on the contract clock after franchise tag designation

The Bears have made Alshon Jeffery the fourth player to receive their franchise designation, a move that unofficially places player and team on the contract clock after initial efforts to reach a long-term contract fell short.

The move positions Jeffery for $14.599 million guaranteed for 2016. The two sides now have until July 15 to agree on a multi-year deal, after which time the collective bargaining agreement permits only a one-year deal until after the current season.

The Bears previously used their franchise tag on Lance Briggs (2007), Matt Forte (2012) and Henry Melton (2013). Briggs played the 2007 season under the tag before agreeing to a six-year deal the following offseason. Forte reached agreement with the Bears on a four-year deal before that year’s deadline. Melton did not come to terms on a long-term deal, was injured early in the 2013 season and left for the Dallas Cowboys the next offseason.

Jeffery was the Bears’ second-round pick in the 2012 draft, acquired when then-GM Phil Emery traded up five slots to ensure the Bears acquiring what Emery regarded as the top wide receiver in a draft that included Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd, Kendall Wright, A.J. Jenkins, Bobby Quick and Stephen Hill – all chosen before Jeffery.

[RELATED: NFL Draft could hold QB nuggets for Bears]

Jeffery, who represented the Bears in the 2013 Pro Bowl, missed seven games in 2015 and parts of two others. He finished with 54 receptions for 807 receiving yards and four touchdowns in his nine games. His 89.7 yards per game were eighth in the NFL last season and fourth in Bears single-season history. He also tied a franchise record last season with three-straight 100-yard receiving games and had four such games last year overall.

Jeffery has appeared in 51 games with 44 starts over four seasons, totaling 252 receptions for 3,728 yards (14.8 ypc) and 24 touchdowns. Since 2013, Jeffery ranks ninth in the NFL in receiving yards (3,361) and tied for 14th in receiving touchdowns (21) in 41 games played.

The former South Carolina receiver is one of five players in Bears franchise history with two 1,000-yard receiving seasons, accomplishing the feat in 2013 (1,421 yards) and 2014 (1,133 yards). His 1,421 receiving yards in 2013 are second-most in Bears single-season history and helped him earn his first Pro Bowl selection.

His 12 100-yard receiving games are already tied for 12th most in franchise history. Jeffery also holds the top two single-game marks in franchise annals for receiving yards: 249 at Minnesota (12/1/13) and 218 versus New Orleans (10/6/13).

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.