Bears general manager Ryan Pace wanted to stay in the moment at the Senior Bowl.
Coaching and scouting potential draft picks took precedence. Contract negotiations with wide receiver Alshon Jeffery were reserved for later.
“Those things will pick up as we get further down the road,” Pace told reporters in Mobile, Alabama, on Jan. 26.
“Those things” will pick up starting Wednesday, the first day teams can apply the franchise tag to players. Teams have a two-week window, which ends March 1 at 3 p.m., to use their franchise-tag designation.
Last year, the Bears waited until the end of the window to put the tag on Jeffery after negotiations stalled at the NFL Scouting Combine. This year’s tag deadline occurs on the second day of the combine.
Beyond deciding on Jay Cutler’s fate, figuring out what to do with Jeffery is the most important decision Pace faces with his roster.
Using the franchise tag on a player allows for more time to reach a long-term agreement. But there’s no guarantee the Bears will use it on Jeffery, who turned 27 on Tuesday, again this year. The franchise tag for Jeffery is projected to be more than $17 million.
Making matters more interesting is that the combine is a week later this offseason. It ends March 6, a day before the league’s three-day negotiation window opens. Free agency officially begins March 9 at 3 p.m.
Turning the 2016 season into a prove-it year for Jeffery was the obvious and only solution after contract talks stalled last year.
Jeffery’s camp was looking for a deal that would put him among the elite at his position — the Bengals’ A.J. Green, the Falcons’ Julio Jones, the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant and the Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas.
But signing Jeffery to such a deal would’ve set a bad precedent for the Bears after he was limited by various soft-tissue injuries in 2015. Availability matters.
Jeffery’s $14.6 million franchise tag put him second in yearly average last season for receivers, trailing only Green at $15 million.
The problem for negotiations this year is that Jeffery’s prove-it season proved very little. Everything remains muddled.
If Jeffery’s camp is adamant in its pursuit of an upper-echelon deal — knowing that big money can be found on the open market — common ground might be hard to find.
Jeffery’s numbers in 2016 — 52 catches, 821 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games — were unimpressive, though he was affected by changes at quarterback.
Still, if the Bears move on from Cutler, can Jeffery connect with the next quarterback?
Jeffery’s value increased when he was voted a captain. But his four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s rules for performance-enhancing drugs soured positive vibes about his intangibles.
“I think Alshon expects more,” Pace said during the Bears’ season-ending news conference Jan. 4. “I think he’s a good player. And that’s a big decision for us.”
But how good is he really?
It’s actually a complex question, considering that the Bears are rebuilding, that the team will have their third receivers coach in three years and that a new quarterback could be coming to town.
The better question might be: Do Jeffery’s talents transcend change?
He had mixed results last season with three quarterbacks. According to Pro Football Reference, Brian Hoyer’s passer rating of 83.3 when throwing to Jeffery was better than Cutler’s (74.3) and Matt Barkley’s (50.9).
On the other side, the argument can be made that the Bears desperately need Jeffery, especially with uncertainty surrounding Kevin White after his second surgery. (White and Jeffery share the same agent.)
All of the above will make for interesting discussions between the Bears and Jeffery in the coming weeks.