Does Alshon Jeffery Deserve to be Paid Like an Elite Wide Receiver?

The Chicago Bears may not believe wide receiver Alshon Jeffery is truly elite, but let's look at the numbers to see if they are right.

Sometimes big news isn’t what happens, but what doesn’t happen.

That’s often the case when a league deadline approaches: the intrigue mounts, the tension builds, rumors fly, and everyone is waiting for the breaking news that will shift the course of their favorite players or team.

Such is the case of the Chicago Bears and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who were hoping to hammer out a long-term extension instead of having to play out the 2016 season on the franchise tag. All along, though, nothing in this story changed; when the July 15th deadline passed, both parties were in the same situation.

One small tidbit slipped, though: ESPN staff writer Jeff Dickerson opined that the Bears’ tactics in negotiations and offers that they made Jeffery suggests that they view him not as an elite NFL wide receiver, but a “’1A’ or an elite No. 2 wideout”, despite Jeffery having the fifth-most career 100-yard receiving games for a Chicago wide receiver.

Is the Bears’ top receiver expendable, as they seem to have indicated, or should Alshon Jeffery be paid like a star?

When I Grow Up

The word “elite” is under constant scrutiny. When we say a player is “elite”, do we mean he’s among the best of all-time? Do we mean he has sustained incredible production over a career? Or do we mean he’s playing at peak level right now?

The perception of this term is one of the difficulties in the Bears’ decision whether or not to offer Jeffery top dollar on an extension. They may feel that he needs to stay healthy in order to justify top-five money for the position, and he likely believes that his impact when he’s on the field is worth the same as the best receivers in the game.

Who’s right?

We can verify Jeffery’s status through the use of numberFire’s signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a metric that shows how that player did versus expectation. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

By comparing Jeffery’s Reception NEP over the last three years -- now that he’s hit his prime -- to other receivers over the same span of time, we can see whether or not he is truly elite on the gridiron. The table below shows Jeffery’s average annual Reception NEP from 2013 to 2015, as well as his Reception NEP per target rate over that same span of time, among the 46 receivers with 90 or more targets in at least two seasons in that span of time.

What do we find?

Alshon Jeffery Avg. Targ Avg. Rec NEP Rec NEP/P
2013 to 2015 129 (20th) 99.03 (16th) 0.77 (14th)

The reason I limited this survey to those players with a high amount of targets in multiple years was that we want to see whether he can hang with players who have seen sustained usage and success. Any receiver can get 90 or more targets in one season, but to do it for two or three years in a row means you’re consistently a vital part of the offense.

In this group, Jeffery’s per-target Reception NEP sits in the same tier as Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, and Antonio Brown, while it's ahead of A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas, and Mike Evans. Among the 15 receivers who’ve met this threshold for three years, Jeffery’s per-target Reception NEP ranks fourth.

His average raw Reception NEP ranks a more meager 16th among the whole group, but he missed almost half of the 2015 season. If we adjust this total to account for the missed games, his average Reception NEP over the past three years is sixth among wide receivers.

Jeffery isn’t just good when he’s healthy; he has been great, and it's hard to envision him being considered anything other than a clear superstar if those injuries had never happened.

I Wanna Be Famous

We can talk all we want about how great Jeffery is, but it doesn’t matter if no team is willing to pay him big-time money. How ridiculous is his asking price?

For starters, when we examine the top-15 producers of Reception NEP last season, we find that the average cap hit per NEP is $62,544, or around $6.25 million per 100.00 Reception NEP -- the threshold to be a top-15 wide receiver in 2015. Jeffery had apparently been angling for more than $12 million annually in his deal, and if we look at just the average rate for production, it might seem like Jeffery’s asking for a massive overpay.

That’s not the case, however.

Six of these receivers were all still playing under their rookie deals in 2015, and are therefore heavily underpaid compared to their production. When we remove those six, the average cap hit per 100.00 Reception NEP comes to $8.98 million. While it seems like Jeffery’s ask of $3 million per year more than this is still pretty steep, he has a fair reason to ask for this much. The table below lays out Jeffery’s closest statistical comps and the average value of their recent extensions (courtesy of Spotrac).

Player aTarg Rec NEP/P AAV
Dez Bryant 148 0.80 $14 million
Julio Jones 183 0.79 $14.25 million
Alshon Jeffery 129 0.77 N/A
A.J. Green 142 0.76 $15 million
Demaryius Thomas 168 0.75 $14 million
T.Y. Hilton 135 0.74 $13 million

If we consider just his per-target value, Jeffery very easily deserves to be in this tier of $13 million to $15 million annually. The Bears wanted him to settle closer to the $10 million range, like recent extensions for Doug Baldwin, Keenan Allen, and Allen Hurns, but he outperforms those players by a signifcant margin.

Player aTarg Rec NEP/P AAV
Doug Baldwin 101 0.85 $11.5 million
Alshon Jeffery 129 0.77 N/A
Allen Hurns 101 0.74 $10.16 million
Keenan Allen 113 0.68 $11.25 million

Jeffery has been better on a per-target basis than either Hurns or Allen, and on average, he has handled 30% more work per season than Baldwin. Jeffery has averaged a 154-target pace over the past three seasons; Baldwin had more than 100 targets last year for the first time in his career. In addition, despite the Seattle Seahawks’ wideout having a higher Reception NEP rate, his 81.94 percent Reception Success Rate -- the percent of plays in which he contributes positive NEP -- pales in comparison to Jeffery’s 87.28 percent mark.

Be Careful What You Wish For

In the past two offseasons, the front office in Chicago has let some impressive players walk away from the team, and the connecting factor for all of them is injury. Running back Matt Forte and tight end Martellus Bennett were casualties this offseason after sitting for a good chunk of 2015. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall was traded after the 2014 season, in part because his production slipped in his final year due to injuries.

Marshall, despite the trade, had another ridiculous season in 2015 with the New York Jets, catching 109 of 173 targets for 130.72 Reception NEP (fifth among wide receivers) and a 0.76 Reception NEP per target (16th among the 41 receivers with 90 or more targets).

There are whispers that the Bears are skittish about extending Jeffery for the same reason -- remember, he missed seven games in 2015 and has had nagging soft-tissue injuries -- but this would be incredibly short-sighted. Jeffery has produced at a rate and volume equivalent to the best and highest-paid receivers in the NFL.

It may be much ado about nothing this offseason, but we’ll start this whole cycle of intrigue again after the Bears’ last game of 2016. Alshon Jeffery is well above a “1A” classification, and the Bears -- or some other team -- will pay him like it next year.