New general manager Ryan Pace has mostly received positive reviews for his work since being hired in January, but he has made one key decision that will end up costing the Bears in a big way.
He has not given receiver Alshon Jeffery a contract extension this offseason and reportedly has no plans to.
Head coach John Fox shed some light on the reasoning for this when he hinted at Jeffery being out of shape in 2014, which contributed to his injury problems. Of course, Jeffery still managed to back up his breakout 2013 season with 85 catches, 1,133 yards, and 10 touchdowns.
At this point it’s clear that Jeffery is an excellent NFL wide receiver, and those players don’t come cheap. When I looked at a possible extension for Jeffery earlier this offseason, I examined similar players to him who re-upped with their teams after 3 years and estimated he would be looking at a deal in the neighborhood of $10 million a year, with roughly $20 million guaranteed.
That’s a pretty price to pay, but here’s the simple truth: the longer the Bears wait to pay Jeffery, the more money they’re going to have to pay him.
With one year left on a rookie contract that will pay him around $4.5 million, Jeffery is doing just fine for himself financially, but his next deal is the one that provides life-altering financial security. Jeffery and his agent are well aware of this fact, but this year the leverage lies with the Bears, because they are the only team that can negotiate with him, and they can guarantee him a lot of money right now before he has to risk a career-ending injury in 2015 that could mean he doesn’t end up seeing that money at all.
For this reason, deals that are the most team-friendly are typically signed with one year left on a players’ contract. This is how the Steelers locked up Antonio Brown through his prime for just over $8 million a year and $8.5 million guaranteed coming off an 1,100 yard season, while teammate Mike Wallace signed a contract for $12 million a year and $30 million guaranteed in free agency 12 months later despite being 2 years older than Brown and coming off an 800 yard season.
If the Bears make Jeffery play out his rookie deal in 2015, then he has the ability to negotiate with 32 teams instead of just one, the leverage shifts to his side, and he becomes significantly more expensive to keep around. Let’s look at some similar players to Jeffery who recently hit free agency to see just how high those prices get.
There have been a couple of big-name wide receivers to hit free agency coming off their rookie contracts in recent years. In 2015, Randall Cobb signed for $10 million a year, $13 million guaranteed, but he took a hometown discount to stay with Green Bay and could have gotten $12 million a year (it’s understandable that Cobb took a discount to play with the best QB in the NFL on a Super Bowl contender, but don’t expect the same from Jeffery).
Jeremy Maclin also got $11 million a year, with $22.5 million guaranteed, in 2015, while 2013 saw Mike Wallace ($12 million a year, $30 million guaranteed) hit it big. Even the older Vincent Jackson, who hit free agency at 29 and with 2-3 more years of his career spent than the three above, got $11 million a year and $26 million guaranteed in 2012.
Alshon’s past two seasons (2,552 yards, 17 touchdowns) are every bit as good as the combined best two seasons for Cobb (2,241 yards, 20 touchdowns), Maclin (2,282 yards, 20 touchdowns), and Wallace (2,450 yards, 18 touchdowns). And those three have the advantage of having caught passes from great quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger or having played in the most stat-happy offense in the league under Chip Kelly, neither of which can be used to deflate Jeffery’s numbers and keep his price down.
Jeffery also has another year to add to his resume before hitting free agency, which will very likely find him hitting the market with a more impressive body of work than any of his recent peers. He should even look better than Jackson, whose two best seasons prior to free agency totaled 2,273 yards and 18 touchdowns, though Jackson did have three 1,000 yard seasons on his resume, a feat which Alshon seems likely to match but which neither Cobb (1), Maclin (1), nor Wallace (2) could.
Indeed, Wallace is the closest recent comparison to Jeffery as of right now, and he struck the biggest deal of the bunch at a time when the salary cap was $30 million lower than it will be in 2016. Wallace was also coming off an uninspiring 64 catch, 836 yard season when he hit free agency, meaning his value was not exactly at a maximum.
I think it’s safe to say Wallace’s deal is a floor for what Jeffery could expect to receive should he be allowed to hit unrestricted free agency next year, with the potential being there for him to get a significantly bigger contract. That means Jeffery is looking at an additional $2 million a year, minimum, on a contract signed next year, which adds up to $10 million (all of it fully guaranteed) more on a five year deal than the Bears could probably lock him up for right now.
Of course, the Bears could let Jeffery play 2015 under his rookie deal and stick him with the franchise tag to prevent him from hitting free agency, but this is an expensive option as well. The Broncos and Cowboys are doing that this offseason with Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant, and they are both getting $12.8 million, fully guaranteed, from their teams in 2015.
The franchise tag guarantees you the average of the top 5 cap hits at your position in that year, and right now that means Jeffery would get $15.3 million dollars in 2016, though that could go up with new contracts to Thomas and Bryant or down with restructures of contracts to players like Calvin Johnson. And that only secures one year of services for Jeffery, who would then be a free agent looking at a huge contract in 2017.
Of course, it could be argued that the Bears are willing to let Jeffery walk next offseason so they can get a compensatory pick in the 2017 draft. This makes little sense for two reasons. First, the highest compensatory pick you can receive is only at the end of the 3rd round. As one of the 10 or 15 most productive receivers in the NFL, Jeffery is worth more to a team than the 100th pick in the draft.
2nd, and most important, you only get compensatory picks if the money spent on players you lose is greater than the money you spend bringing in new players in free agency. Given that the Bears are slated to have more than $40 million in cap space and few big-name free agents to re-sign besides Jeffery next offseason, they will be spending money to bring in outside players, so losing Jeffery likely wouldn’t even bring them a compensatory pick in return.
Compensatory picks are for teams with too much homegrown talent to afford keeping. The Bears are definitely not in that position right now; they don’t have enough good players worth spending money to keep around. Jeffery is one of those players, and letting him walk would be foolish.
Doesn’t make sense
No matter how you spin it, not giving Alshon Jeffery an extension this offseason is a foolish move that will either cost the Bears millions of dollars (likely $10 million over the course of a 5 year deal) or result in them losing one of the few young playmakers on the roster with little to no return.
If Chicago is going to re-sign Alshon Jeffery, then waiting another year will only increase his leverage, even if he has a down season. If they don’t plan on making him a highly-paid part of their future, then their best plan for maximizing his value is to trade him away now instead of losing him for nothing next year.
Maintaining the status quo with Jeffery diminishes the returns he will provide to the Bears, yet this is exactly what Ryan Pace is doing. It’s a rookie mistake for a young GM who is believed to mostly be doing a good job so far.