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Emma: Franchise Tag A Likely Option For Bears On Alshon Jeffery

By Chris Emma--

(CBS) When healthy and active, Alshon Jeffery has proved he's an elite receiver worthy of a big contract. Unfortunately for him, that wasn't the case in his contract season of 2015.

Jeffery averaged 89.6 yards in his nine games of action, posting four touchdowns in the abbreviated campaign. At full health, he posted three straight games of more than 100 yards, coming off four missed contests prior. Then, he suffered injuries to his groin and shoulder in practice.

The "prove it" 2015 season for Jeffery was marred with four different injuries to four different soft-tissue muscles -- hamstring, groin, calf and shoulder -- an alarming trend for any front-office decision-maker. Even a top talent like Jeffery is an investment when considering those injury concerns.

Tuesday marks the first date in which teams can designate players for the franchise tag, meaning they will be compensated for one season at the average of the top five salaries at that position. Essentially, it's a way for general managers to buy another year for making that key contract decision, if so desired.

Jeffery's likely to get the Bears' franchise tag from general manager Ryan Pace, a source close to the situation indicated, which would offer another chance in 2016 to prove he can be both healthy and productive. While there are other factors in play for the Bears, perhaps involving free agent-to-be tight end Zach Miller, allowing Jeffery to show his worth next season is what's most likely to occur.

"If it happens, it happens," Jeffery said in January of the franchise tag. "I just play football. I let my agent and Mr. Pace figure that out."

Chicago has hopes that the receiving tandem of Jeffery and Kevin White can emerge as one of the NFL's best. Jeffery has said the two would be "something special" working together, but health was a problem for both in 2015. White sat out the entire season with a leg fracture.

Receivers in the NFL have been tendered large contracts as of late. Last summer, Dez Bryant got a five-year, $70-million deal with the Cowboys. The Falcons topped that for Julio Jones, who received five years and $71.25 million.

In Week 17, the Bears' starting receivers were Josh Bellamy, Cameron Meredith, Marc Mariani and Deonte Thompson, each of whom entered the 2015 season pegged for reserve roles. Then, the injury bug bit.

The Bears are unlikely to part ways with Jeffery this offseason, with receiver being an important need. Quarterback Jay Cutler has a great on-field connection with Jeffery, but his presence in the huddle hasn't come consistently enough.

Tagging Jeffery this offseason -- and perhaps at their earliest convenience -- allows the Bears to move on to the next of their many decisions ahead, including a potential move of tight end Martellus Bennett. The deadline to tender the franchise tag is March 1, and free agency negotiations begin on March 7, with contracts allowed to be signed March 9. Pace must have his options for a roster revamp sorted by then.

Jeffery vowed to change his offseason preparation in order to ensure soft-tissue risk is reduced. He's working with Jay Glazer in California on a rigorous regiment.

"I plan on having a hell of an offseason, working out the soft-tissue issues, stuff like that," Jeffery said. "I'm just ready to play football."

That's a start for Jeffery, who must prove himself on the field. It seems likely that the Bears will afford him that opportunity with the franchise tag. A multi-year extension isn't out of the realm but may not be in the Bears' best interest.

Important decisions on Jeffery's future are ahead -- perhaps as early as Tuesday, when the franchise tag becomes available for use.

Chris Emma covers the Chicago sports scene and more for Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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