One of the most important off-season decisions Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace will make is how seriously to pursue a long-term deal for wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who becomes an unrestricted free agent in March.
Part of that decision will depend on how well Pace believes his 2015 first-round draft pick, Kevin White, can return from back-to-back, season-ending left-leg fractures.
White says he will be ready to roll, but his time frame to return is vague.
Jeffery was a Pro Bowl player in 2013, the first of two seasons in which he averaged 87 receptions, 1,277 yards and 8½ touchdowns.
But Jeffery missed seven games in 2015 with a variety of injuries, and he sat out a four-game PED suspension this year. In those seasons, he averaged 53 receptions, 814 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Jeffery, who turns 27 next month, made $14.599 million in 2016 as the Bears' franchise player. On a long-term commitment, he will be looking to make at least $12 million a year on a four- to five-year deal.
The Bears could slap the franchise tag on Jeffery again, but that would cost them 120 percent of last year's $14.599 million -- a whopping $17.518 million.
The Bears discovered a diamond in the rough this year in wide receiver Cam Meredith, an undrafted rookie in 2015 who caught 66 passes for 888 yards and 4 TDs in 2016. But just one quality wideout isn't nearly enough in today's NFL.
Locking up Jeffery and getting White healthy would be ideal, but the Bears need at least one of those two things to happen. There are plenty of other holes on a 3-13 team without adding wide receiver to the list.
After being drafted seventh overall, White missed all of his rookie season with stress fractures in his tibia that required surgery.
He worked his way back into the starting lineup this season and had 6 catches each in Games 3 and 4. But, just as he was starting to show a glimmer of his enormous potential, White suffered a spiral fracture of his fibula and a severe high-ankle sprain.
"It's frustrating," the 24-year-old White said. "I did everything I could in the off-season. Stayed here, trained, worked my butt off. It's just unfortunate, but it's the name of the game. I've just got to fight back and stay patient and mentally stay tough."
Quarterback Brian Hoyer's first two starts of 2016 in relief of injured Jay Cutler were White's final two starts, when he had a combined 12 catches for 117 yards.
"He was really starting to emerge," Hoyer said of the 6-foot-3, 216-pound White.
Even though he hasn't yet progressed to running, White seemed upbeat Monday, when players cleaned out their lockers.
He believes his most recent surgery will be an easier rehab than his first. And he knows there will be doubters, but he's not one of them.
"No doubts," he said. "I'm actually excited. A lot of pressure. A lot of doubts that everybody else has, but I'll work it out.
"It won't mess my game up at all. It's just about the time frame. Once I'm able to start doing everything I'm allowed to do, that's when I'll try to hit it hard."
White says "for sure" he will be ready for the first day of the Bears' off-season program in April. "Once I get the green light to do what I can," he said, "I'm going to take off."
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