Next moves for Bears after tagging Alshon Jeffery
The Chicago Bears made official yesterday what many reported last week by placing the franchise tag on star wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (94.2). Absent the ability to strike a long-term deal, placing the franchise tag on Jeffery was the right move, as he was not only the top wide receiver available on the free agent market, but he was the third-highest graded receiver in the league last season, trailing only Julio Jones (96.0) and Antonio Brown (96.5). The Bears missed Jeffery for seven full games last season, and he was limited for two others.
While securing Jeffery’s services for (at least) another year gives Bears fans some reassurance, the fact that Jeffery has missed so much time in the past underscores that this move needs to be just one in a collection of moves to give Jay Cutler and the Bears’ offense the biggest chance to succeed in 2016. As colleague Thomas Maney wrote last week, the Bears have plenty of needs on the defensive side of the ball, and their offensive line leaves much to be desired. However, with the pending loss of running back Matt Forte (81.9), the unhappiness of tight end Martellus Bennett (72.0), the pending free agency of 2015 pleasant-surprise Zach Miller (81.0), and the unproven nature of presumed 2016 feature-back Jeremy Langford (67.8), the Bears would be well-served to consider adding pieces to their stable of offensive weapons. With more than $40 million in cap space even after the Jeffery move, the Bears are in a good position to accomplish such a task while still addressing other needs.
Re-signing Miller and assuaging Bennett would give the Bears a potent 1-2 punch at the tight end position, but would still leave them with the likes of Eddie Royal (52.5) and Marquess Wilson (69.8) to start at receiver alongside Jeffery. Royal averaged only 6.4 yards per catch last season (5.1 of them after the catch), which was worst among wide receivers in the league, and Wilson had just 1.24 yards per route run last season, with only one touchdown. Furthermore, Royal and Wilson had injury problems of their own, missing 12 combined games in 2015.
Young, effective, and relatively-cheap options such as Rishard Matthews (79.4), Marvin Jones (79.0), and/or Jermaine Kearse (76.8) would be solid additions to the Bears’ offense, and would be consistent with the intentional youth movement under second-year head coach Jon Fox. The emergence of 2015 top-pick Kevin White would very much help the offense, as would the acquisition of a role-playing running back like Bilal Powel (73.4) or the retention of Jacquizz Rodgers (70.3), who ended last season on injured reserve.
The tagging of Jeffery is a big, although not unexpected, blow to teams looking to better their receiving stables in free agency. Some options remain, however, including the aforementioned Matthews, Jones, and Kearse. Kearse and Matthews finished fourth and fifth, respectively, among wide receivers in quarterback rating on passes targeted in their direction, while Jones dropped only four of his 93 targets in 2015 (14th-best among receivers), and was able to score 10 touchdowns in 2013. Travis Benjamin (69.8) is also available, and adds a lot in the return game. The Bears could also seek a WR option in the draft.
Given the lack of high-end options available at the receiver position, as well as their own lack of depth at the position, the Bears made a good decision tagging Jeffery. In trying to build from a relatively-surprising 6-10 season (including a 5-3 road record), the Bears need to continue to search for offensive weapons to take pressure off of Jeffery, and to give Cutler and new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains the best chance to succeed in 2016.