I chuckled a bit Friday night when the Chicago Bears drafted a safety for the eighth consecutive year, this time one in Brandon Hardin who missed his final college season because of injury. But the Bears' ongoing safety obsession wasn't enough to steer me away from what is easily the most intriguing decision they made over the draft's first two days.
South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery has generated polar debates among NFL types, some of whom think he will flop in a manner similar to former Detroit Lions receiver Mike Williams. Others, Bears general manager Phil Emery included, viewed him as one of the draft's top three receivers and one whose question marks could all be attributed to outside influences.
If you were watching the ESPN broadcast of the draft, you saw analyst Jon Gruden torch Jeffery for his roller-coaster weight and poor reaction to South Carolina's quarterback issues last year. Indeed, Jeffery played his final season at close to 235 pounds while is production dropped to 49 catches after pulling in 88 in 2010. He was 216 pounds at the scouting combine in February, but at the time ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, referred to it as a "Jenny Craig 216 pounds" because he had dropped the weight quickly and drawn concern about whether he could keep it off.
If he returned to 235-240 pounds, scouts wondered if he would have enough speed and quickness to separate from NFL defenders. Here's a portion of the Scouts Inc. report on that topic: "Is stiff and upright, which gives DBs a big target to press. Below average initial burst off the line and takes a bit too long to reach full speed. Gets away with some sloppy routes."
Here, on the other hand, is what Emery said he saw: "We feel Alshon has the best hands in the draft," Emery said. "We feel he is the best at adjusting to the ball. We feel he is the best sideline and end-zone catcher in the draft."
Indeed, Emery attended Jeffery's pro day and said he personally timed his 40-yard dashes at 4.42 and 4.47 seconds. Jeffery also has a number of other intriguing measurables, from his 6-foot-3 frame to his large hands (10 1/4 inches) to his long arms (33 inches!). Add up those numbers on paper, at least, and Jeffery would seem to have all the ingredients necessary to be a top-flight red-zone/sideline receiver, one who can compensate for any lack of separation from defenders by reaching over and/or around them for the ball.
Coaches, however, don't always think the same way as scouts. Gruden, for example, was alarmed by the fall in Jeffery's production and a number of instances where his frustration with losing quarterback Stephen Garcia diminished his effort. If it happens once, could it happen again?
The Bears brought Jeffery in for a private visit earlier this month to address the issues from his weight to his performance last season. Emery acknowledged that "I do think he got frustrated" and that "I saw the frustration on tape" but that it was caused by the quarterback transition and not a dark place Jeffery's personality.
"When you challenge him and push him a little bit, which I did in our meeting about his weight and where he was at in his production, his answers come back strong," Emery said. "This guy does not lack athletic confidence. He knows he’s good, which is a good thing. He knows he has to work to continue to get better. The more and more you watch of his tape, the more you see the competitiveness. This is not a lazy guy. When he gets the ball in his hands, he's working to score. He doesn't give up. I don't see give up in this guy in any area."
Emery liked him enough not only to use a second-round pick, but also to sacrifice a fifth-rounder to move up in the round to grab him. It's the kind of move that draws attention to and gives us important insight into Emery's values. This is a player he really, really liked and has committed to. That makes Alshon Jeffery the first boom or bust player in Emery's tenure as the Bears' general manager. We'll see how it goes.