Play tag? Franchise window opens for Bears, Alshon Jeffery

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Is Alshon Jeffery an elite NFL receiver?

He’s certainly the Bears’ best. He can do things their other receivers can’t. As promising as Kevin White might be, stardom isn’t guaranteed for the 2015 first-round pick, not after he missed his entire rookie season because of a stress fracture in his shin.

Re-signing Jeffery is the Bears’ top offseason priority. When it happens, he’ll be paid like one of the league’s best at his position.

The Bears simply can’t let him leave. He’s too good and too valuable in an offensive-minded league. General manager Ryan Pace can’t say he wants to build around quarterback Jay Cutler and then say farewell to Jeffery and running back Matt Forte in the same offseason.

In other words, the Bears need Jeffery more than he needs them.

Tuesday is the first day the Bears can apply the franchise tag to Jeffery. Teams have until 3 p.m. March 1 to use the franchise tag, which is projected to increase from $12.823 million to around $14.5 million in 2016 for receivers.

The Bears have plenty of salary-cap space and can easily afford that. But Pace views the franchise tag as a tool. It allows more time to reach a new deal. To Pace, a long-term contract is mutually beneficial. Still, that $14.5 million price should be a basis for negotiations with Jeffery’s agent, Eugene Parker.

In 2015, the Cowboys and Broncos put the franchise tag on Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas, respectively, before signing them to five-year contracts. Julio Jones (Falcons), T.Y. Hilton (Colts) and A.J. Green (Bengals) also received extensions. All but Hilton have average salaries of $14 million or more.

With that type of financial commitment, Jeffery’s injuries are the biggest concern. He was limited to nine games last season because of various soft-tissue injuries. His conditioning was questioned in the Bears’ new fitness program, but Jeffery played in every game in the previous two seasons.

Also, how much does Jeffery want to be here?

It’s a question that should be answered honestly now. After the season and at various times during it, Jeffery was asked if he wanted to remain with the Bears, and his stock answer was that he loved Chicago.

Jeffery was dismayed by the team’s decision to trade Brandon Marshall, a big-brother figure. If he stays with the Bears, Jeffery also will be working under new receivers coach Curtis Johnson after Mike Groh left for the Rams after three seasons.

But to say that Jeffery doesn’t like his situation at Halas Hall would be untrue. He has a rapport with Cutler and was very passionate about the Bears’ win against the Packers on Thanksgiving, which included dancing with Fox in the locker room. Fox also tabbed Jeffery to give one of the pregame speeches this season. It’s also a good sign that Jeffery is training with Jay Glazer in California. Glazer, an insider for Fox Sports and a close friend of Fox’s, runs a mixed-martial-arts training center.

Jeffery also has a relationship with White. The Bears always envisioned them playing together, and both players have indicated they want that, too.

The best answer about Jeffery’s future might have come from White — they have the same agent — while players were cleaning out their lockers in January.

“They want to get it done,” White said. “Al wants to stay here. We want him to stay here. It’ll be some good things happening on the field if he stays.”

Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns

Email: ajahns@suntimes.com

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