The who’s who of NFL wide receivers begins with A.J. Green, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas and Julio Jones because they have the biggest contracts at the position.
Alshon Jeffery wants to be paid like an elite receiver, too.
But should he?
It’s the main question as the Bears and Jeffery’s camp continued contract discussions this week. The sides have until 3 p.m. Friday to agree on a long-term contract. If they don’t, Jeffery will play under the franchise-tag tender.
The absence of a deal isn’t an indication that the Bears don’t want Jeffery to be part of their future. They do, and they’re willing to commit money to him. But a new deal would require Jeffery’s camp to come down on its salary demands.
Right now, Jeffery is set to make $14.6 million this season. That puts him second among wide receivers in annual average, trailing only the Bengals’ Green at $15 million.
Jeffery had an opportunity to prove his worth last season. Brandon Marshall was gone, and first-round pick Kevin White was injured. Jeffery was the unquestioned No. 1 receiver.
Instead, his stardom came in glimpses because of various lower-body, soft-tissue injuries.
Jeffery’s limited availability is what separates him from Thomas and Bryant, who cashed in at this time last year after the Broncos and Cowboys, respectively, applied the franchise tag to them.
Thomas and Bryant’s deals are nearly identical. Thomas signed a five-year, $70 million contract, which includes $43.5 million in guarantees. Bryant signed a five-year, $70 million deal, with $45 million guaranteed.
Unlike Jeffery, Bryant and Thomas cemented themselves among the league’s best receivers before getting their blockbuster deals. They were coming off Pro Bowl seasons in which they played in all 16 games for playoff teams.
Bryant led the league with 16 touchdown catches. Thomas was second in receptions and yards.
Jeffery’s per-game production the last three seasons is comparable to Green’s, but he missed more games last season than Green has in his five-year career.
Jeffery’s 2015 campaign was encouraging and discouraging. When healthy, Jeffery provided Cutler with a viable option in a season short on them because of numerous injuries.
Jeffery appeared in nine games, making 54 catches for 807 yards and four touchdowns. The Bears averaged more points, total yards and passing yards when he played.
“You take a guy like that out of the offense, it’s going to be difficult,” Cutler said last month.
But being elite also requires being available.
The Bears believe they can get a handle on Jeffery’s spate of nagging soft-tissue injuries. But the team’s medical staff couldn’t work with him when he skipped the voluntary portions of the offseason program.
If Jeffery opted to take part in organized team activities, his story might be different. He had a chance to sell the team more on himself but passed.
Instead, Jeffery worked mainly in Florida with the same trainer he began working with before last season.
Jeffery’s absence wasn’t surprising, but it was disappointing to the team, and coach John Fox voiced that sentiment.
Add it all up, and there’s enough uncertainty that the Bears are willing to make 2016 a prove-it season for Jeffery, even if he ends up driving up his price tag.
It’s a risk worth taking compared to rewarding a player who faltered in his first go-around in a contract year and then stayed away from Halas Hall for most of the offseason program.
Over the next several months, the Bears will truly learn what they have in Jeffery.