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Alshon Jeffery intends to be top WR, but Bears looking for help

For three seasons, Alshon Jeffery was behind Brandon Marshall in the Bears’ receiver drills. He followed, watched and learned. There were workout trips to Florida and hours spent hanging out. A little brother/big brother relationship formed.

Now Jeffery’s alone. Big bro was traded to the New York Jets last month.

‘‘Every year I’ve been here, he’s been here,’’ Jeffery said during voluntary minicamp this week. ‘‘It’s kind of strange and kind of different. As the season comes along, I guess it will wear on me, him not being here. Man, I don’t even know. . . . I’m going to miss him a lot.’’

They have a bond that Jeffery says will remain intact regardless of the separation. He and Marshall have been texting back and forth.

‘‘He’s the same ol’ ‘B,’ ’’ Jeffery said.

But Jeffery can’t be the same ol’ Jeffery. He knows he needs to be better, proving to the Bears’ new brass that he can be a true No.  1 receiver in the final year of his rookie contract.

‘‘It’s taking that challenge of being that guy,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m just going to work hard to prove that I’m there.’’

Challenges lie ahead

Replacing Marshall, though, appears to be high on the agenda. General manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox want more than Eddie Royal and Marquess Wilson.

And the Bears still need to be convinced that Jeffery can be a
No. 1. Only then will that second contract come.

The Bears have met with the two best receivers in the draft, Alabama’s Amari Cooper and West Virginia’s Kevin White. White even said Thursday he believes the Bears will draft him if he’s available at No. 7.

If that’s that case, former Bears receiver Curtis Conway has a theory: Quarterback Jay Cutler remains the focal point of the offense, despite the sweeping staff changes. With recent history as proof, an emphasis on Cutler doesn’t equate to success.

‘‘If you draft a receiver, you’re telling me you’re looking forward to throwing the ball,’’ said Conway, an analyst for NFL Network. ‘‘The Bears’ problem is that they threw the ball too much. Jay is a good quarterback, but you need to hand the ball to Matt Forte a little more. You’ve got a solid No. 1 [receiver], so build this defense up.’’

Conway isn’t alone in his opinion of Jeffery. Marcus Robinson and Willie Gault, two other top receivers from the Bears’ past, think the same. But they’re all intrigued about how Jeffery will do without Marshall.

‘‘He’s a complete receiver,’’ said Gault, the Bears’ top receiver in their Super Bowl season of 1985. ‘‘But with he and Marshall together, it was like: Who are you going to stop? Who are you going to double? It’s tough when you lose a guy like Marshall, but I’m sure they’ll figure it out.’’

Robinson said the onus is on Jeffery, who had 174 catches, 2,554 yards and 17 touchdowns over the last two seasons.

‘‘We’ll see if he matures through that,’’ said Robinson, who had 84 catches, 1,400 receiving yards and nine touchdowns for the Bears in 1999. ‘‘It’s easy to get frustrated if by the second quarter you had two attempts. Do you stay with your routes? Do you stay patient and keep believing in it? He is a competitive athlete, so I don’t think that will be his issue.

‘‘[But] there’s so many good corners out there watching film specifically on you. They’re watching two hours of film on every route that you run, every move that you make. And they guess and they jump on your little curl routes. For some guys, it’s hard to just to adjust to all that.’’

As Conway said, ‘‘you have to have the mental makeup’’ to do it.

‘‘[Jeffery has] proven that he can play,’’ Conway said. ‘‘Now he just has one more hurdle. Can he be a legit No. 1?’’

Help on the way

A deep receiver class and a lengthy list of defensive needs make passing up on Cooper and White a real option. But Pace still wants to give Jeffery help.

‘‘To pair guys up with Alshon,’’ he said, ‘‘that wouldn’t be a bad thing.’’

But a day before the draft and after the second day of minicamp, Pace stopped short of calling Jeffery a No. 1 receiver. He described him only as ‘‘a great player.’’

Robinson and Conway said Jeffery should turn to his experiences with Marshall to take the next step. His mentorship could be decisive, and they would know. Robinson credited Conway with helping to establish his approach, pointing out a conversation they had during the 1999 season. Conway said he benefitted from playing behind Jeff Graham for two seasons.

‘‘[Jeffery] has had one of the best mentors in the game in Brandon Marshall,’’ said Conway, who had 329 catches, 4,498 yards and 31 touchdowns over seven seasons with the Bears. ‘‘Brandon has been a target everywhere he’s been. I’m quite sure he’s taken a bunch of notes and Brandon has taught him how to be a No. 1.’’

But help on the field still will help. Conway said the Bears’ plans for Jeffery are important and that the second round should feature some attractive options at receiver.

That said, Jeffery is focused on himself.

‘‘I’m just going to go out and work hard each and every day and just do my job,’’ he said. ‘‘The rest will take care of itself.’’

Email: ajahns@suntimes.com
Twitter: @adamjahns