Alshon Jeffery caught more than 300 passes in five seasons with the Chicago Bears, most of them from Jay Cutler, and the quarterback has little doubt Jeffery will be catching a bunch more with the Eagles this season.
“He’ll be fine. I don’t know what’s going on here or where he is in the system, or what his production has been like, but as long as he’s healthy, he’s going to produce,” Cutler said. “He’s a pro. He knows football, has great instincts, great feel. If he’s healthy, that wouldn’t be a guy I’d worry about.”
Well, easy for him to say. Cutler was at the NovaCare Complex on Monday along with the rest of the Miami Dolphins for the first of three days of Philadelphia-based practices leading up to Thursday’s exhibition game at Lincoln Financial Field. Cutler, who briefly retired after being released by the Bears, has his own receivers to worry about, and Jeffery isn’t one of them any longer.
What’s been going on here thus far for Jeffery has been underwhelming. His training-camp work was limited for the first couple of weeks by a slight shoulder injury, and during last week’s exhibition against Buffalo, when Jeffery made his preseason debut, he was targeted five times, caught just two passes, and glaringly ran the wrong route on one of his opportunities.
Wide receivers coach Mike Groh said Jeffery, 27, was a little “behind” in his preparation for the season, an opinion not shared by the receiver, who said so. In all likelihood, this is training-camp drama with the shelf life of a ripe avocado, but until Jeffery has himself a game, or at least a difficult catch in a game, it will linger.
Monday was a good day for Jeffery, and not just because he was often working against former Eagles cornerback Byron Maxwell, now with the Dolphins. He and Carson Wentz combined for some deep completions and, if there is anything limiting Jeffery physically, it wasn’t apparent.
“It’s all about having confidence in yourself,” Jeffery said. “Nothing against a young person, but your mind approaches this game differently as you get older. You see it differently. You understand it better. You realize that everything is about consistency and building toward a goal.”
In other words, the first few weeks of training camp are about preparing the meal, not putting it on the table for inspection. That’s a long-honored point of view for veterans, even if the kitchen falls a little behind at times.
“I thought today Alshon looked good. It was a good step forward,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. “There’s no question when you have veteran players, there’s a little more of a comfort zone because they know what it takes. There’s still a sense of urgency. It doesn’t mean that just because you’re a veteran player, you don’t have to push as hard every day. But these guys know how to do that.”
Jeffery came to the Eagles with his production on record, but also with a slight reputation for nursing himself slowly through injuries. He was limited to nine games in 2015 with various soft-tissue problems before hitting the injured reserve list with a bad hamstring. Last season, he was popped with a four-game suspension for violating the league’s PED policy with what Jeffery said was a tainted supplement. The Bears, who put the franchise tag on him for 2016, let him walk into free agency this offseason, which is where the Eagles scarfed him up for a one-year, $9.5 million deal.
A good season with the Eagles could keep him around for a few more years, or he might walk again. Either here or elsewhere, he is playing for that next contract and is undoubtedly aware that he won’t earn it during training camp.
He has shown good speed when on the field during camp, and is a big target at 6-foot-3. Cutler made him sound like a quarterback’s dream.
“Just throw it up there and he’ll make it right. Get him one-on-one and you can throw back shoulder or over the top. It’s hard to cover a guy like that,” Cutler said. “He’s one of those natural guys who knows where the ball should be thrown. Great body control and hands. He had some injuries with us that were little speed bumps, but when he’s healthy and rolling, he’s one of the best out there.”
Thursday’s game against the Dolphins, which will have the starters playing extensively for the final time before the regular season, will be the last opportunity for Wentz and Jeffery to show something out of the ordinary. There have been flashes during practice, but those are always measured against the backdrop of limited contact and the illusory nature of practice itself.
“When you’re younger and you have a bad practice, it’s the end of the world,” said receiver Torrey Smith, another veteran who has yet to make much of a preseason mark. “When you’re older, you realize that’s part of camp. Today was OK for us, offensively. It was another day at the office.”
In any event, Jay Cutler said that when the Eagles list their concerns, they shouldn’t put his former teammate too far up the list. Alshon Jeffery will be just fine. Everyone is relieved to hear that the future tense is assured, and none too soon, because the present tense arrives in a couple of short weeks.