This past week, I took a look at maybe the most polarizing player in the 2012 draft class: Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery was highly productive as a freshman and sophomore at South Carolina. Following his 2010 sophomore season, some draftniks penciled in Jeffery as their top overall prospect for the 2012 draft. Jeffery let his body get away from him as a junior, however, ballooning to the point where some noticed a "gut" on the receiver. The Gamecocks played musical chairs at quarterback that season. After an 88/1,517/17.2/9 line the year before, Jeffery posted a pedestrian 49/762/15.6/8 line as a junior. He entered the draft anyway.
Although he wasn’t considered a top-ten pick anymore, most figured Jeffery would go in the bottom third of the first round. Then, there were whispers the 6-foot-3 receiver had swelled up to 249 pounds while running pre-Combine forty times in the 4.8 range. Jeffery got on a lose-weight-fast diet, and he weighed in at 216 at the NFL Combine. Two months later, the Bears traded up with the Rams to take Jeffery with the No. 45 overall pick, and the plan was for him to develop as the starting flanker opposite Brandon Marshall.
Jeffery’s rookie campaign was ruined by injuries, which may trace back to those aforementioned conditioning issues. After a tape review of Jeffery's 400-plus rookie-year snaps, I was more disappointed with his play than I was impressed. I'm just not sure it was all Jeffery’s fault. I charted all of Jeffery’s 2012 plays.
Here's what I observed, followed by an attempted glance into Jeffery's future within new coach Marc Trestman's offense:
The Bears' 2012 Offense
Bears 2012 coordinator Mike Tice was a noted offensive line guru, but seemed overmatched as a playcaller and schemer. Tice's offense was designed to be a high-percentage, run-first, vanilla "attack" that didn’t call many vertical shots unless Brandon Marshall was on the receiving end. Stretching the field and using his leaping ability to reel in big grabs downfield is Jeffery’s specialty. He isn’t a polished route runner, even though some claimed that was a strength for Jeffery coming out of college. Jeffery also didn’t start right away. Receivers coach Darryl Drake never let go of the vision he had for Devin Hester as a receiver. Hester blew countless routes and dropped routine passes. Yet, the Bears kept giving him snaps out wide, keeping their second-best receiver in Jeffery on the sideline.
Also working against Jeffery was Jay Cutler’s fondness of Marshall. It looked like a backyard football game at times between the two. Cutler would roll out to buy time, direct Marshall with his left hand, and then throw to him no matter how many defenders were around the receiver. Sometimes, Cutler wouldn’t even go through progressions, instead zeroing in on Marshall. There were a few times that I saw Jeffery standing wide open, waving his hands in the air, begging for the football. He’d then run back to the sideline in disgust and shake his head as Hester reentered to steal snaps. Jeffery didn’t have a ton of opportunities, especially early on.
Jeffery never battled injuries in college, but he missed six games as a rookie. A month into the season, he appeared noticeably more comfortable and his arrow was seemingly pointing up. In Week 5, Jeffery broke his hand on a touchdown catch against the Jaguars. Jeffery was sidelined for five weeks, missing four games. He returned in Week 11 against the 49ers on Monday Night Football, but was forced from the game midway through the third quarter. Jeffery needed arthroscopic knee surgery. He missed the next two games, before returning to start the final four. The broken hand was a fluke injury, and the knee scope seemed to be, too.
I charted Jeffery with 441 snaps on the season – 217 lined up wide right (49.2 percent), 180 wide left (40.8 percent), and 44 in the slot (10 percent). Early on, he spent the majority of time on the right side at flanker, or “Z” receiver. Many top NFL corners who play “sides” as opposed to mirroring top wide receivers play on the left side, covering the receiver on the right. But when Jeffery returned for the final four games, it was an almost dead-even split between the left and right sides. Jeffery also got looks at “X” receiver late in the year because Marshall was playing in the slot more.
Target and Route Breakdown
I charted Jeffery with 57 targets (including penalties) as a rookie. 27 targets came on first down, 14 on second down, 14 on third, and two on fourth. Jeffery hauled in 24 passes – 17 moved the chains – for 367 yards and three touchdowns. Nine of the other 33 targets that weren’t caught, I deemed drops or “catchable” passes, and another nine were washed out due to penalties. Ten of Jeffery’s targets came in the end zone, mostly on deep passes. Yet, he caught just one pass all season when the Bears were in the red zone.
There was one instance -- in Week 3 against the Rams -- that really stuck out where Jeffery wasn’t even part of the red-zone package. With his 6-foot-3 frame and ability to high-point the football, Jeffery would seemingly be a prime target at the goal line on back-shoulder fades. The Bears frequently decided that the much smaller Hester was a better option. In the St. Louis game, Hester beat Rams LCB Cortland Finnegan for what would have been a four-yard touchdown, and the ball was thrown perfectly by Cutler on Hester’s back shoulder. All Hester needed to do was jump and catch the ball. Instead, it went right through his hands. The Bears settled for a 22-yard field goal.
On Jeffery’s 57 targets, I took notes of which route he ran. He ran 13 “go” routes, 13 “hitch” routes, eight “comebacks,” six back-shoulder fades, four posts, three “stutter-go” double-moves, three “ins,” two “outs,” one slant, one corner, one “seam,” one crossing route, and one route was completely ad-libbed.
Jeffery wasn’t asked to run a lot of high-percentage routes that called for easy completions. When he wasn't targeted, I often noticed Jeffery simply running downfield to clear out defensive backs so that his teammates had more space. In other words, Jeffery was a decoy. I didn’t like his “get-off” at the line of scrimmage; Jeffery kind of rolled into his routes and it took him a few strides to pick up steam. However, when cornerbacks tried to jam him at the line, I did like Jeffery’s ability to shake and avoid it. Cutler described Jeffery’s route-running chops best by saying the receiver is “sneaky nonchalant.” It looks like Jeffery is just gliding downfield. I’d like to see him really dig his foot in the ground more and make sharp breaks, but he wasn’t asked to do that much as a rookie.
Where Jeffery Needs to Improve
Jeffery’s hands were awfully shaky in year one. In Week 3 against the Rams, he beat Cortland Finnegan on a double-move on 2nd-and-7, but couldn’t come down with the ball after it hit him in the hands. It was a difficult grab, but it’s one a lot of receivers make. Two plays later on 1st-and-10, Jeffery got wide open on a crosser over the middle. Finnegan closed fast on him, but the ball hit Jeffery in the hands and fell to the ground. On a 2nd-and-15 in Week 14 against the Vikings, Jeffery let a 39-yard touchdown pass clank right off his hands deep down the left side in the end zone. There were also some catches he made that were bobbled.
I’d like to see Jeffery use his size more to his advantage. In the aforementioned Week 14 Vikings game, Jeffery ran an “in” route. He slipped a bit and was knocked off the ball too easily by smallish cornerback Josh Robinson (5'10/199), who picked off Cutler and took it to the house for a touchdown. I’m not saying Jeffery never uses his size well. He was impressive crossing the face of Jacksonville’s Rashean Mathis (6'1/193) on a slant route for a ten-yard touchdown in Week 5. Jeffery was also being held and engaged in hand-fighting on the play. It’d just be nice to see him be more consistent.
Penalties were a huge problem for Jeffery in Week 15 against the Packers. He was called for three offensive pass interference flags against Sam Shields in the second half. The three penalties negated a one-yard touchdown on fourth down, a seven-yard completion on first down, and a 37-yard grab down the left sideline on 3rd-and-10. In college, Jeffery could get away with extending his arm and pushing off defensive backs. In the NFL, any sight of an extended arm by a receiver is whistled for pass interference.
Jeffery wasn’t always on the same page with his quarterback. This may have to do with unfamiliarity and games missed more than anything. But in Week 15 against the Packers, Jeffery ran a corner route instead of a seam route out of the right slot. The rookie didn’t see the safety pinching up, but Cutler did. Cutler threw the seam, and it would have gone for a 60-yard touchdown had Jeffery just kept running.
What I Liked
It’s hard not to like Jeffery’s long speed. It takes him a few strides to get going, but once he gets in gear he can run by good cornerbacks. In Week 1 against the Colts, Jeffery blew by Vontae Davis on 2nd-and-7 for a 42-yard touchdown. Cutler laid the ball up perfectly in the back of the end zone. Back to the Week 14 game against the Vikings; Jeffery roasted Josh Robinson in the second quarter for a 23-yard touchdown on a “go” route. He swam/shook the jam attempt at the line of scrimmage and ran right by Robinson.
Jeffery is a willing, try-hard blocker, but he isn’t particularly good at it. He isn’t bad, but you’d like to see him be better considering his size. Jeffery had nice blocks to help spring Matt Forte for long runs in Week 1 against the Colts and Week 16 versus the Cardinals. Marshall is one of the best blocking receivers in the game, so hopefully Jeffery can learn a thing or two from him. Marshall and Jeffery have been training together this offseason.
Tice's plain offensive attack is gone. In is Trestman's quick-hitting, spread out, West Coast philosophy. Expect to see Marshall and Jeffery on the outside a lot, with Earl Bennett and Martellus Bennett working the seams. Trestman’s offense relies on short routes to put the defense to sleep, and then he’ll dial up an occasional deep ball. Though Marshall racks up a ton of yards, they come mostly via short passes and YAC. Hester won’t see the field on offense under Trestman, so Jeffery will serve as the primary deep threat.
I don’t expect Jeffery to be much more than a low WR3 or high-end WR4 as a sophomore, but he kind of reminds me of Kenny Britt. Britt averaged a whopping 17.5 YPR on his first 101 career catches. Like Britt, I don’t expect Jeffery to be a high-volume receptions guy, but he could turn into a solid deep threat who wins with height and leaping ability. Jeffery is a dynasty hold, but he’s nothing more than a late-round flier in re-draft leagues.