The 2017 NFL free-agency period had begun last spring with the presumption that Alshon Jeffery would be at the center of a league-wide bidding war, that the best wide receiver on the market would command and demand a contract that, in years and dollars, would be a risk for whatever team decided it couldn't do without him.
Jeffery had put together two marvelous seasons for the Chicago Bears in 2013 and 2014. But his reception and yardage totals had declined steadily for three years, and he hadn't played a full 16-game season in either 2015 or 2016. So any long-term commitment to him seemed to threaten a team's salary-cap flexibility and leave a franchise paying top-of-the-market money to a player who couldn't be counted on to suit up every Sunday.
As it turned out, Jeffery signed a one-year deal with the Eagles that could have been worth up to $14 million. In doing so, according to an NFL.com report, he turned down a multiyear contract offer from the Minnesota Vikings — the Eagles' opponent Sunday in the NFC championship game. Asked Thursday about that offer, Jeffery didn't deny that he'd received it. In fact, he acknowledged that the Vikings were one of the teams that had pursued him.
"I just felt the best opportunity was here in Philly," he said.
With the benefit of hindsight, it's easier to see why Jeffery would have turned down the Vikings and banked that the Eagles would be a better immediate and long-term fit. At Calhoun County High School in St. Matthews, S.C., Jeffery was the best player on a varsity basketball team that won four consecutive state championships. He had been hesitant to play varsity football, he said, because the school's football program traditionally wasn't as successful as its basketball program. "All I was used to," he said, "was winning."
In Chicago, he was getting used to something else. Over Jeffery's five seasons with them, the Bears never reached the playoffs. They had gone 3-13 in 2016. They were in decline. The Eagles had the look of a team on the come. Carson Wentz was their starting quarterback, and he was coming off a promising rookie year, and the Vikings had Sam Bradford and Case Keenum. No one could have predicted at the time that Keenum would have a career season, and Jeffery himself isn't one to reveal much to the media, always answering questions with a sly little smile, as if he knows something you don't. But in the wake of his decision to join the Eagles, those close to him made it clear that Wentz's presence, talent, and potential had been a major factor in Jeffery's choice.
"To be honest, I didn't think he was going to leave Chicago," Jeffery's older brother Charles Ben said in an interview in early August. "He loved Chicago, and I didn't think he was going to leave, you know? Then he called me, and he was like, 'What do you think about Philadelphia?' I was like, 'Bruh, I'm with you a hundred percent, no matter what you do.' I said, 'Go for it. If you feel that's the right fit for you, then do it.' He's excited. If the quarterback plays just a little better, you know, that's all he really needs."
"In my heart," Jeffery's cousin Barry Charley said, "if things go well this year, he'll establish himself in Philly."
Things went well. Wentz played a lot better, actually, developing into an MVP candidate, and after 12 games together, Jeffery felt secure enough in Wentz's and the Eagles' future to agree to a four-year extension that could pay him up to $52 million. His numbers weren't otherworldly — 57 catches, 789 yards, nine touchdowns — but that didn't matter. Wentz was here, and Jeffery was part, finally, of a playoff team.
Of course, eight days after Jeffery signed the contract, Wentz tore his left ACL against the Rams. So in one of the crucial subplots of Sunday's game, Jeffery will try to free himself from Xavier Rhodes, one of the NFL's best cornerbacks, often enough that Wentz's backup, Nick Foles, can find him downfield. In his nine career games against Minnesota, Jeffery has 45 catches for 685 yards and seven touchdowns. But only so much of that production has come with Rhodes covering him, and Eagles coach Doug Pederson has spent time ahead of Sunday's game reviewing film of Jeffery's games against the Vikings, probing for something, anything, from the past that could give Jeffery an edge.
"Does it apply to this game? Maybe a little bit," Pederson said. "I think Alshon's a better player. I think [Rhodes is] a much better player, obviously, and he's playing with a lot of confidence. It's going to be another great matchup again Sunday."
This was what Alshon Jeffery had wanted all along: the comfort and validation of a multiyear contract combined with a chance to compete for a Super Bowl. It was more than just the money. It always was. "I'm excited," he said. "It's an exciting time. This is what you live for. This is what you dream for as a kid."
This was the opportunity he had sought in the spring. He gets his shot at all of it Sunday.