Wednesday begins a two-week window in which Bears general manager Ryan Pace must decide whether to apply the franchise tag once again to free-agent wide receiver Alshon Jeffery for a second straight year.
At Pace's last meeting with the media a little more than two weeks ago at the Senior Bowl, he said he had not had discussions with Jeffery's representation since the end of the season. That's undergone adjustments since the passing of prominent agent Eugene Parker last March 31, though Jeffery has remained with the same renamed, restructured agency.
The next time Pace is tentatively scheduled to meet with reporters is on that deadline to tag Jeffery, March 1, at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Another tag would raise Jeffery's salary from roughly $14.5 million in 2016 to $17 million in 2017. Depending on whether you reference Over The Cap or Spotrac, the Bears currently rank in the top 10 in salary-cap space, anywhere between $54 million and $58 million. Devoting nearly a third of that money to a player who's had trouble remaining "available" is the quandary Pace faces if Jeffery is unwilling to accept a more team-friendly multi-year contract in the $13 million range.
Over the past two years, elite wideouts like Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Julio Jones and A.J. Green have all signed multi-year deals averaging in the $14 million to $15 million range. Accounting for dead cap penalty charges, the Bears would add $14 million more in cap space by cutting Jay Cutler and $5 million more each for Lamarr Houston and Eddie Royal. But if Jeffery hits the market, he'll be the top wideout available, and a team could very well be willing to invest Bryant, Jones and Green money, if not more.
So getting to the purpose of this entire piece, if Jeffery is allowed to reach free agency March 9, here's a look at what I believe would be the most likely fits for him, based on a combination of need and salary-cap space.
Despite huge strides by Marcus Mariota — now in recovery from a serious leg injury — the Titans passing offense ranked 25th in the NFL last season, with slot wideout Rishard Matthews and tight end Delanie Walker catching 65 passes apiece. Fifth-round rookie Tajae Sharpe showed promise, but between the 1-2 ground attack punch of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, combined with an elite run defense (and a low-ranked pass defense), Jeffery would be a potentially playoff-clinching piece. The Titans have between $65 million and $67 million of cap space.
With $60 million to $64 million of cap space available, one-third of that figures to go to quarterback Kirk Cousins. Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson are free agents (one of which could conceivably be a replacement for Jeffery in Chicago). Washington has big needs defensively, but never put a splash signing past owner Daniel Snyder (see Josh Norman a year ago). Jeffery signing in D.C. would put him a hop, skip and jump from his native South Carolina.
Perhaps there could be a battle between NFC East teams for Jeffery's services. Jordan Matthews and Carson Wentz started developing a connection last season (73 receptions, 804 yards and three touchdowns), but Jeffery could provide a Twin Tower weapon to go along with tight end Zach Ertz in the passing game. The Eagles have roughly $10 million in cap space and would likely have to make cuts or do a few restructuring of contracts.
Los Angeles Rams
Tavon Austin can be an even more dangerous slot receiver if he had a legitimate outside threat for Jared Goff and new head coach Sean McVay to target, combining with Todd Gurley on the ground. The Rams have about $40 million in cap space and have competition in town now with the Chargers' move north.
San Francisco 49ers
They have tons of salary cap space (north of $80 million), no real playmakers and a new head coach in Kyle Shanahan looking for a comparison to Julio Jones, who he had in Atlanta. Jeffery would immediately become the offensive star but also need a little help around him. Like his situation with the Bears, though, there are questions about whom he'll be catching passes from.
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Here are a few next-tier possibilities.
Complete money grab. More than $100 million in salary cap space. It's Cleveland. Quarterback questions. And probably only if they don't re-sign their own big wideout heading to market: the less-experienced Terrelle Pryor.
New England Patriots
It's not like the Patriots to dump huge money in a wideout's lap. They do well enough without one. They have more than $60 million in cap space, however. How much better would Tom Brady be with someone like Jeffery? Hey, how about an Jeffery-for-Jimmy Garoppolo "trade"?
The Colts' cap space is between $55 million and $60 million, and they really need to invest in defense and to continue building their offensive line. This might be a stretch, since Donte Moncrief had seven touchdown receptions in an injury-prone season. But Andrew Luck with Moncrief, T.Y. Hilton, Phillip Dorsett and Jeffery? Yikes!
Veteran beast Larry Fitzgerald is back for one more year, but what happens after this season? (Not to mention their quarterback situation.) They have waterbug wideouts in John Brown and J.J. Nelson, but Bruce Arians will be lacking a physical, jump-ball specialist once his future Hall of Famer likely retires after this year. The Cardinals have less than $35 million in salary-cap space but finished this past season top 10 in offense and defense.
Adam Gase has some pieces to work with in a passing game in Jarvis Landry (94 catches for 1,138 yards), 2015 first-round pick DeVante Parker (56 catches for 744 yards) and Kenny Stills (42 catches for 726 yards), but Ryan Tannehill & Co. managed just the 26th-ranked passing offense, with Tannehill's Week 13 knee injury still looming this offseason. Gase knows Jeffery. But the Dolphins might need to focus their $30 million in cap space on its 29th-rated defense.
Jeffery's not out of town yet. Perhaps Pace and Jeffery's representatives have begun exchanging numbers for something compatible on both sides. Jeffery's departure would mark yet another offensive playmaker who's left town the past three offseasons and signify another hole that'd need to be plugged. But as we can see above, there are teams with needs that Jeffery would fill nicely.