On Sept. 8, the day before the season-opener, the Eagles restructured wide receiver Alshon Jeffery’s contract. They guaranteed all of his $9.91 million base salary for 2020 in exchange for salary-cap flexibility.
The Eagles, uncharacteristically, announced the agreement on their team web site, although with little detail. Various players have agreed to restructurings over the last several years – all to increase cap space -- but never had the team been so public about it.
“Win. Win. All around,” the story proclaimed.
Was it? Maybe for Jeffery, who has some assurance for next season. But it’s fair to question if the Eagles would have restructured the four-year, $52.25 million extension he signed in Dec. 2017, thus allowing little wiggle room for 2020, based on how the last 2½ months have gone.
It was a questionable decision in the first place. Jeffery had been decent in his first two seasons in Philadelphia, but he never matched his production with the Bears or filled the role as a bona fide No. 1 receiver. And this season, for whatever the reason, he has regressed even more.
Injuries have played a part. He has already missed nearly three games and is questionable because of an ankle injury for Sunday against the Seahawks. Despite his struggles, he’s the Eagles’ best remaining receiver, after DeSean Jackson was lost for the season.
“I think injury, if you let it mentally, can affect anybody,” Pederson said. “But I think one of the things I appreciate with Alshon is how he battles through it, fights through some of the stuff he’s dealt with through his career here.”
Jeffery played through a torn rotator cuff in 2017 and fractured ribs in 2018. But he hasn’t, despite the injuries, come close to resembling the player who first made the Eagles want to sign him as a free agent in March 2017. Or even the more recent one who was, if anything, good for a handful of catches, an occasional touchdown, and no dropped passes on a weekly basis.
And then there’s the ESPN anonymous-quotes fiasco in which Jeffery has been been alleged to be the source of disparaging remarks about quarterback Carson Wentz and the offense.
Jeffery had initially denied any involvement. But when a WIP-FM radio personality, who also happens to be the Eagles’ sideline reporter, claimed that the source was the receiver, Jeffery declined further comment.
Wentz has publicly stood by his receiver. While they have lacked chemistry, particularly compared with Jeffery’s connection with Nick Foles and his quarterbacks in Chicago, Wentz continues to target him as often as any receiver.
But the results just haven’t been there. Jeffery has caught 34 passes for 353 yards and three touchdowns in eight games. While his 4.3 catches per game doesn’t register as the lowest of his eight-year career, his 10.4 yards per catch, and 6.4 yards per target averages are the worst.
And his five drops on 39 catchable passes, per Pro Football Focus, is also the worst ratio (12.8) of his career. He had three dropped passes in the Bears game alone.
“I have never seen him drop three balls, whether it’s six years or something together, I don’t anticipate that happening again for another six years,” said offensive coordinator Mike Groh, who had also worked with Jeffery in Chicago. “The guy has excellent hands and he has a proven track record in this league and is a very good player and will continue to be a very good player.
“We haven’t lost any confidence in him.”
Jeffery deserves some benefit of the doubt. He caught 76 passes for 988 yards and six touchdowns in 15 games, including the playoffs, just last year. But the 29-year old hasn’t performed near his median level.
He has never been the swiftest of receivers, but getting separation on the outside has proven more difficult. And the 50-50 passes that Jeffery had previously been known for tilting in his favor have been virtually nonexistent with Wentz.
“You could argue we could go after that a little more,” Wentz said last month. “That’s something I could be better at. I can do a better job of giving him those chances. I think that’ll come.”
But after nearly three seasons, is it worth waiting? Jeffery has had his moments here. His 2017 postseason was memorable, especially a 34-yard touchdown snag in Super Bowl LII. But also memorable – for all the wrong reasons – was his late-game drop against the Saints in the playoffs last year.
If the Eagles hadn’t guaranteed his 2020 salary, a release this offseason might have seemed possible. But Jeffery is fully guaranteed $11.5 million, according to an NFL source, and the team would take a $26.106 million salary cap hit if it were to cut him before June 1.
There is offset language in Jeffery’s deal, so the Eagles would receive compensation if he were to sign with another team. But it’s unlikely that he would get anywhere near his $13 million average annual salary with the Eagles.
A trade before June 1 would knock $10 million off the cap hit, but the number is still significant, and his contract would likely scare off potential partners.
The only other likely way the Eagles could get out of Jeffery’s contract would be if he were to default, which would void his guarantees. He could default in a number of ways – by refusing to report, by engaging in hazardous activities, by being suspended by the league for violating the substance-abuse or personal conduct policy, or by making any public comment that criticizes the team, teammates, coaches, ownership, etc.
The defaults are standard for player contracts. But the latter example could be used, in light of the WIP report, if the team “reasonably determines, in its sole discretion,” per Jeffery’s contract, that his comments warrant forfeiture.
It’s difficult to imagine the Eagles going to such lengths, even if they could prove that Jeffery was the ESPN source, although they did something similar many years ago with another receiver, Terrell Owens.
Owens, of course, put his name behind criticism of then-quarterback Donovan McNabb and the team. Jeffery, it should be noted, has been nothing but considerate when publicly asked about Wentz.
Wentz made an extensive effort to spend more time with his teammates this offseason, especially the receivers, in light of a report that he had been selfish and uncompromising last year. In June, after he signed his contact extension, Wentz treated his top three receivers – Nelson Agholor, Jackson, and Jeffery – and tight end Zach Ertz to a celebratory dinner at Barclay Prime.
In July, he flew many of the Eagles’ skill position players down to Houston, where they stayed at his new home, for workouts and socializing. Wentz bought Jeffery a plane ticket, but the receiver never showed, sources familiar with the trip said.
Jeffery, who was limited at practice all week, declined an interview request Friday.
While Jeffery has had good games with Wentz at the controls, their numbers pale against those with Foles or the several Bears quarterbacks who threw to the receiver.
In 31 games with Wentz, Jeffery has caught 134 of 233 passes (57.5 ratio) for 1,617 yards (6.9 yards per target), and 16 touchdowns. On throws over 20 yards, he has caught 8 of 36 (22.2 catch ratio) for 253 yards (7.0 yards per) and two touchdowns.
In 12 games with Foles, including the playoffs, Jeffery caught 45 of 62 passes (72.6 ratio) for 732 yards (11.8 yards per), and five touchdowns. On throws over 20 yards, he caught 8 of 17 (47.1 ratio) for 281 yards (16.5 yards per) and two touchdowns.
In 63 games with the Bears, Jeffery caught 304 of 532 passes (57.3 ratio) for 4,540 yards (8.5 yards per), and 26 touchdowns. And on throws over 20 yards, he caught 46 of 128 (35.9 ratio) for 1,455 yards (11.4 yards per) and 11 touchdowns.
Eagles backup quarterback Josh McCown spent two seasons in Chicago with Jeffery. In eight games together, Jeffery caught 40 of 61 passes (65.6 ratio) for 659 yards (10.8 yards per) and five touchdowns. His best game ever – 12 catches for 249 yards and two touchdowns against the Vikings in 2013 – came with McCown.
It’s no wonder Jeffery has spoken so glowingly of the quarterback since he arrived in Philly. The 40-year-old McCown said little has changed about the way the receiver approaches the game.
“He’s still a guy that comes out and works, all the way back to his rookie year, Day 1,” McCown said. “He went after it day-in and day-out. I don’t see anything different now.”
The entire receiver corps has underperformed since Jackson’s injury. But aside from Agholor, who is slated to become a free agent, the Eagles may have to bring back the rest of the group. Jackson is under contract for two more years with some of his 2020 salary guaranteed. Rookie J.J. Arcega-Whiteside isn’t going anywhere.
And Jeffery seems destined to return, as well. He has six games, if he dresses Sunday, to turn his season around. After dropping a third pass against his former team earlier this month, Jeffery made a crucial third-down catch on the Eagles’ last drive of the game. He said the drops never entered his mind.