Alshon Jeffery sounded like a very expensive pawn in a high-stakes chess game Tuesday.
“Me and my agents talked about it and I felt it was probably best for me to train somewhere else,” the Bears wide receiver said when asked why he did not participate in the voluntary portion of the team’s offseason program.
“I just felt it was the best situation for me,” he said, again.
The damage from Jeffery’s contract gambit — if there is any damage — remains to be seen. Coach John Fox is a big fan of “throwback” players — team-first guys who are dependable, which puts Jeffery in a bit of a hole entering his fifth season and Fox’s second with the Bears. Jeffery missed most of training camp last year and seven regular-season games with four different injuries. Now he’s blown off the first two months of the Bears’ offseason program.
“We have a sign in our locker room: ‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail’, Fox said last month. “Well, if you’re not out there, it’s hard to prepare real well.”
Fox doesn’t publicly seem too perturbed by Jeffery’s situation, indicating Tuesday that it’s part of a game bigger than the player. “Most of the guys [play] for the love of the game,” Fox said. “It’s a business. I get that part. It’s not my favorite part. I don’t think it’s [the player’s] favorite part, either. I think they like to compete and play and that [contract] part’s not a concern.”
For his part, Jeffery didn’t seem to think his absence from the offseason program — despite having signed the $14.6 million franchise tag contract the Bears offered —was an affront to the program.
“The team is always first,” he insisted. “I’m on the Chicago Bears. I’m still under contract. Whatever else happens, that will take care of itself. But right now, I’m just focusing on the Chicago Bears. I’m here.”
Jeffery, who made the Pro Bowl in 2013 when he had 89 receptions for 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns, still is hoping for a long-term contract. “That’s the goal,” he said. “But that’s between Mr. Pace and my agent.”
As it stands, Jeffery seems likely to play for the franchise tag contract this season. The Bears would not be wise to give a top-of-the-market deal to a player who suffered four different injuries last season. And likewise it would not be prudent for Jeffery’s agent to negotiate a lesser deal for a 26-year-old wide receiver who is such an obvious difference-maker — Jeffery averaged nearly 100 yards per game when healthy last year.
And when it comes to any of those contract issues — getting the long-term deal or playing under the franchise tag —Jeffery was out of the loop.
“It really doesn’t matter to me,” he said when asked about playing under the tag.” That situation will take care of itself. I’m just here to focus on football.”
Unlike tight end Martellus Bennett — who boycotted the voluntary portion of the offseason program in a contract ploy and was traded to the Patriots for a net fifth-round draft pick —Jeffery doesn’t have to prove he’s a team-first guy and doesn’t figure to pay a price for missing quality team time. If Jeffery stays healthy and produces, the Bears are unlikely to hold a grudge.
“Alshon’s a pro,” quarterback Jay Cutler said. “I’ve been around him long enough. I know how important football is to him. I know what kind of competitor he is.
“It would have been easy for him to come out there and say, ‘Hey, I haven’t been here. I don’t really know some of this stuff’ and not taken the reps. But he was out there with us the whole time doing his thing. I’m not worried about [catching up] at all. We’re going to catch him up. He’ll be ready.”
Jeffery has averaged 85.7 yards per game and 15.2 yards per catch in his last 38 games over three seasons. The only thing he has to prove is that he can stay healthy. He said he worked on “soft-tissue issues” with his personal trainers in Florida but believes his injuries last year were part of playing football.
But Jeffery’s long-term prospect with the Bears remain in the balance. It’s pretty clear he’s not calling all the shots. He just plays football. He doesn’t negotiate contracts.
“That’s between Mr. Pace and my agent,” he said.