Bears

If Alshon Jeffery doesn't return to Bears, where might he play next season?

If Alshon Jeffery doesn't return to Bears, where might he play next season?

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.

Tennessee Titans

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.

Washington Redskins

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.

Philadelphia Eagles

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.

Cleveland Browns

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"?

Indianapolis Colts

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!

Arizona Cardinals

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.

Miami Dolphins

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.

(Too) Bold Predictions: Akiem Hicks' return to the Bears will be felt immediately. Literally.

(Too) Bold Predictions: Akiem Hicks' return to the Bears will be felt immediately. Literally.

(Too) Bold Predictions aims to take nuanced, well-researched information and use it to make wildly improbable predictions. Analysis! 

Cam Ellis

1. Akiem Hicks has a sack on the first series of the game
The Packers have the best pass-blocking unit in football, and Aaron Rodgers is averaging something like three seconds per dropback to throw. Still, there are going to be far more one-on-one matchups on the line because of his return, but I imagine the Packers' are still focused on stopping Khalil Mack first and foremost. With so much attention to both edges – because you'll remember Leonard Floyd is basically Khalil Mack against the Packers – Hicks is going to get some single-man looks. Hicks gets to Rodgers somewhere on the Bears' first defensive series, and the upset is off. 

2Kyle Fuller finally connects on jumping a route ... twice 
It feels like Fuller's been painfully close to a pick-six a bunch of times this season. There was the one in Denver, and in Los Angeles, and the latest came against Dak Prescott last Thursday night. I'm pretty sure I'm forgetting one or two also. At one point, he's going to connect, and the weirdest possible moment would be against a quarterback that doesn't throw interceptions that plays on a team that doesn't turn the ball over. We'll say only one goes for a touchdown, but if tomorrow gets weird, it's going to get weird. 

Rob Schaefer
1. Khail Mack logs three sacks in Akiem Hicks' return
Our long national nightmare is over. Akiem Hicks is back, and with him, could come an unleashing of Khalil Mack the likes of which we haven’t seen this season.

We’ve written about the impact of Hicks’ presence on Mack’s production before. The theory is simple: With another all-world talent eating up the inside of opponents’ offensive lines, teams have less capacity to focus extra attention on Mack. Granted, the Bears have gotten decent production along the line this season in the form of Nick Williams (six sacks), Roy Robertson-Harris (10 QB hits) and flashes of Leonard Floyd. But this week, the potential is there for their pass rush to return to its 2018 form, and that starts with Mack.

The Packers have the fourth-highest PFF pass block rating (79.4) in the NFL and Aaron Rodgers is notoriously slippery, which is what makes this prediction bold. But Mack has been trending up recently (two of his 7.5 sacks and six of his 13 QB hits have come in the Bears’ last three games). Perhaps the return of Hicks will push him to new heights.

2. David Montgomery has his 2nd 100+ yard rushing performance of the season.
If there’s a soft spot in this Packers defense, it’s in the heart of their front seven. On the outside, Preston and Za’Darius Smith are often used to edge-rush and contain — roles they’ve been effective in — but the two backers in the middle of their base 3-4, Blake Martinez and B.J. Goodson, both enter this one with average PFF grades (as do defensive ends Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster). Frank Clark is, admittedly, a beast, but again… Bold predictions.

As a team, the Packers allow the eighth-most rushing yards per game (122.8) in the NFL, and Matt Nagy has displayed intention in establishing the run as the season has worn on. With conditions set to be frigid and Montgomery coming off his third game with 20+ rush attempts of the season last week against Dallas, a breakout from him is plausible. 

The Packers beat a bad Bears team in Week 1. In Week 15, they'll get a totally new one.

The Packers beat a bad Bears team in Week 1. In Week 15, they'll get a totally new one.

All week, reporters at Halas Hall tried to get Matt Nagy and the Bears to compare who they were during Week 1’s game against Green Bay to where they are now. And all week at Halas Hall, Matt Nagy and the Bears wouldn't bite. 

“We're both different. They're a little bit different, we're different,” Matt Nagy said. “They did a great job both as players and their coaches, so like I said yesterday, it feels like a while ago and that's why you play. You have a 16-game season and in division you get two chances. We'll just do everything we can to put it behind us and try to be better.” 

Different might be an understatement. Gone are Kyle Long and Bobby Massie. The Starting-Center-James-Daniel experiment is over, and Mike Davis is playing in the NFC South now. Adam Shaheen and Trey Burton – though the latter didn’t play in Week 1 – are on IR, too. Normally, losing two starting tight ends, a ‘starting’ running back, and the entire right side of the offensive line means you’re spending the last month of the season scouting for 2020. Instead, the Bears head to Lambeau Field on Sunday with a path to the playoffs still in front of them. 

“I just feel like we’re kind of in a rhythm now. We’re a different team,” Mitch Trubisky said. “There were some things that we had to go through in the first game and the beginning of the season that just didn’t go our way, and there’s things we definitely learned from as an offense. 

“I just feel like we have a new-found identity of what we want to do and everybody is really locked into what they have to do within their job description on the offense.” 

Perhaps the biggest difference between Week 1 and Week 15 has been the play of Trubisky, who looked like he was headed for a clipboard in 2020 before regaining his form over the last month or so. His comfortability in the offense is night and day compared to some of the struggles he went through during the first half of the season. If you ask him – which, duh, we did – he’ll tell you he’s felt the most growth off the field. 

“I just would say mental toughness, the ability to block out things on the outside,” he said. “Adversity, obviously, early in the season with people talking on the outside and then having to play through injuries and stuff, and just coming together closer as a team. My teammates having my back, that really gives me the most confidence.” 

The 14-week turnaround isn’t all about confidence, as Nagy 202 has morphed into something not expected but effective nonetheless. The running game has stabilized and they’ve found successful plays out of 4 WR sets – even if one of those receivers is Montgomery/Tarik Cohen. In Week 1? Montgomery had six rushes and the Bears ran two plays out of 10 personnel. Nagy said that he thought something clicked on Trubisky’s touchdown pass to Ben Braunecker against the Lions. 

“There's something there,” he said. “We felt it a little bit in the Chargers game, we just weren't effective in the red zone. But because we won the [Lions] game it magnifies it a little bit more … And then we just kind of started putting things together and I think over time we've just felt like it's just started to click. I don't know if it's specifically one play or not but that's probably my best guess.” 

It couldn’t have come at a better time, as the team prepares for what Nagy calls a “cat-and-mouse” game against Packers’ defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who perhaps knows Trubisky better than any other opposing coordinator in the game. 

“Coach Pettine has done a great job throughout his career of being almost tendency-free,” he said. “And they’re even better now with how they deploy those guys, and it’s kind of a perfect, perfect storm of scheme and talent, and the guys on the back end help them out too.” 

The Bears are playing with a looseness that might come from essentially being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, but oddly, it continues to work for them. And when you have to go play Aaron Rodgers in Lambeau with your season on the line, you don’t question what works. 

“I love it. You want to go against the best all the time,” said Akiem Hicks, who was taken off IR and will start on Sunday. “If you’re a true competitor, you want the best competition.”