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Tag, you’re not it: Bears prepare for Alshon Jeffery’s farewell

Alshon Jeffery. (AP)

A day after the Bears’ 3-13 season ended, receiver Alshon Jeffery was asked to explain his impassioned prediction that the Bears would be a different team in 2017. After all, he brought up the Super Bowl.

“I really believe it in my heart,” Jeffery said in early January. “You have to believe this is going to be a special year. You’ve got to believe. You’ve got to have faith and put in the work.”

And then Jeffery was asked whether he would be on that Bears team.

“I just answered your question, didn’t I?” Jeffery replied.

He didn’t, and several weeks later, that answer appears to be a firm no.

As expected, the Bears won’t use the franchise tag on Jeffery. He’ll reach the free-agent market when the new league year begins March 9, and it’s unlikely he’ll return.

Using the tag on Jeffery for the second consecutive season would have cost $17.5 million.

So what’s next for the Bears? Here are some questions to consider when looking at the situation.

Is Jeffery worth $17.5 million?

Jeffery isn’t a market-setting player, which is what the franchise tag would have made him.

But the Steelers’ Antonio Brown is.

On Monday, Brown agreed to a four-year contract extension worth a reported $68 million. His $17 million average is the highest among receivers.

Jeffery’s camp is looking for a deal that puts him among the position’s elite. Last year, it was the Bengals’ A.J. Green ($15 million annual average) and Falcons’ Julio Jones ($14.25 million). Now it starts with Brown.

Jeffery failed to improve his standing in consecutive contract years. His per-game averages of five catches and 77.5 yards in those two seasons trail the production of Brown (7.8 catches, 100.6 yards), Green (5.8 catches, 86.9 yards) and Jones (7.3 catches, 109.3 yards). They also played a lot more.

Who else is similar to Jeffery?

Last year, the Chargers’ Keenan Allen was thought to be a strong comparison for Jeffery. Allen signed a four-year, $45 million extension in June.

Now, DeAndre Hopkins’ next contract with the Texans is worth monitoring. The Texans exercised Hopkins’ fifth-year option, meaning he’s set to make $7.9 million in 2017.

But Texans owner Bob McNair said he wants to extend the deal, and it could happen soon now that Brown’s deal was extended.

Hopkins’ per-game averages of 5.9 catches and 77.3 yards are similar to Jeffery’s the last two years. But Hopkins played in every game and scored 15 touchdowns to Jeffery’s six.

What effect did Jeffery’s suspension have?

The key word is availability. Jeffery has struggled with it. He dealt with various soft-tissue injuries in 2015 and missed seven games. Last year, he was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s rules for performance-enhancing drugs.

The issues are linked, too. Jeffery, according to his own statement, said he took a “recommended supplement” to combat inflammation.

Jeffery’s suspension soured positives about his intangibles. It was a bad look for a team captain — and one of the longest-tenured Bears —to get banned.

Coach John Fox said at the time that the team was “very disappointed” in Jeffery. The team, of course, didn’t recommend the supplement.

As a result, Jeffery failed to prove much in a prove-it season. Instead, he raised more questions about himself.

So where does this leave the Bears?

Jeffery’s market will set itself starting this week at the NFL Scouting Combine. It’s believed that the Eagles, Titans, Rams and 49ers will have interest.

Losing Jeffery all but guarantees that the Bears will look at receivers in free agency (see speedster Kenny Stills).

Without Jeffery, the depth chart begins with Kevin White (two surgeries in two seasons), Cam Meredith (one year of production) and Eddie Royal (a veteran candidate to be released).