The Bears crossed the most pressing item off their offseason to-do list Monday, giving Alshon Jeffery their franchise tag and all but guaranteeing the wide receiver will play for the team in 2016.
Now they need him to be Matt Forte.
Of the three other players the Bears have given franchise tags over the last decade — Lance Briggs in 2007 and Henry Melton in 2013 — Forte was the only one to negotiate a long-term deal rather than play the upcoming season under the tag. Forte lived up to the four-year, $32 million contract he received in 2012, too — he averaged 1,092 rushing yards and 533 receiving yards per season.
The stakes are higher for Jeffery to do the same.
The Bears and Jeffery’s representatives, Eugene Parker and Tory Dandy, want to reach a long-term deal before the July 15 deadline, after which the receiver could only accept the one-year, $14.599 million franchise tag salary that was announced Monday.
The two sides negotiated during the NFL Scouting Combine, though the Bears eventually decided to tag Jeffery one day before Tuesday’s deadline. The tag grants them another four-and-a-half months to reach a multi-year deal whose annual value, it figures, would be around the $14.599 million price.
GM Ryan Pace considers big-money free agency “ dangerous water,” but he’s more comfortable investing in his own players — particularly one who would have been considered the league’s best available offensive player this offseason.
The Bears have the money to make a deal — about $45 million in cap space after accounting for Monday’s tag, not including salaries for draft picks.
Because he was given a “non-exclusive” tag, Jeffery can still negotiate with other teams, but at a cost so prohibitive as to consider his departure unlikely. The Bears can match any offer presented Jeffery by rival teams; if the Bears choose not to match, the rival must give them two first-round draft picks for the right to sign Jeffery.
Jeffery, then, seems likely to become the face of a Bears offense that has lost Brandon Marshall and Forte in the last 12 months — and could soon lose tight end Martellus Bennett.
Playing alongside Kevin White, who missed his rookie season because of shin surgery, Jeffery will be quarterback Jay Cutler’s top target in 2016.
Despite missing nine games last season with calf, hamstring and groin injuries, the 26-year-old caught 54 passes for 807 yards and four touchdowns last season. Jeffery’s 89.7 yards per game ranked eighth-best in the league.
While Jeffery’s injuries last season frustrated some inside Halas Hall, the Bears believe the pieces are in place for him to avoid a repeat. Jeffery appeared in all 16 games in each of his previous two seasons.
Jeffery began training at the Los Angeles mixed martial arts gym of Fox Sports personality Jay Glazer, a friend of John Fox. While the Bears coach said last week he didn’t steer Jeffery there, he praised the gym as being “a new concept — a little more of the mental training as well as the physical.”
“I think being in Year 2 with a player helps a lot just understanding his body and his body mechanics,” Pace said last week. “I know him and his agent are doing some things, too, to improve on that. When he gets back, we’ll have a plan in place. It’s important.”
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