Why Jeffery is on the list
Jeffery is a very large human who can make big plays down the field. There are just not many of those guys around. After being pegged as a potential top-five pick, Jeffery was one of the most talked about prospects in the 2012 draft class because of his weight gain and questions about his work ethic.
It didn't take long before Jeffery started to look like a nice value for a player taken in the middle of the second round. He put up 80 yards on three catches in Week 1, including this long vertical strike for his first touchdown. Jeffery faced questions about his speed before the draft, but he repeatedly got behind defenses as a rookie. He beat press coverage at the line of scrimmage. Rotoworld pointed out the perfect Jay Cutler quote, describing Jeffery's route-running as "sneaky nonchalant."
Jeffery certainly doesn't have the speed of Chris Givens, one of our other Making the Leap picks, but the Bears used him more frequently as a vertical threat. During one game against the Minnesota Vikings, Jeffery was targeted on five straight deep passes. His 15.5 yards per catch is a big number for a player with questions about his speed.
Still, Jeffery's spot on this list is more about opportunity and less about his rookie game film. Jeffery missed six games as a rookie because of a broken hand and knee surgery. He flashed big skills but wasn't able to get into a rhythm. We love his chances of changing that this year under new coach Marc Trestman.
The Bears will no longer keep Jeffery off the field in favor of guys like Devin Hester. They won't rely on Brandon Marshall to carry the offense so much. In an offense full of chain movers like Marshall, tight end Martellus Bennett and slot receiver Earl Bennett, Jeffery stands out as a potential big playmaker. Trestman is on record expecting Jeffery to start. Reports about his conditioning and attitude have been glowing. His role is going to increase.
Jeffery was not a highly efficient player in 2012, and it wasn't all about his role. He needs to learn how to use his big body (He's 6-foot-3, 216 pounds) in a smarter way. Jeffery's footwork can be sloppy on occasion, and he can get outmaneuvered by much smaller cornerbacks. On the play to the right, Vikings cornerback Josh Robinson beats Jeffery to the spot on a timing pattern, Jeffery falls down and Cutler gets intercepted. Jeffery has to keep his feet there and at least prevent a pick.
He somehow had three offensive pass interferences in the same game against the Green Bay Packers in Week 14, finishing the crucial game with no catches. Jeffery caught just 24 of 48 targets in part because he didn't make as many contested catches as you'd hope. This was supposed to be Jeffery's strength as a player, but too often I saw him get into position only to fail finishing the play. Cutler occasionally also grew frustrated with Jeffery when they were not on the same page on routes.
There's a fine line between playing physical and playing smart. Later in the same Vikings game where Jeffery helped cause an interception, he pushed the same cornerback (Josh Robinson) in order to make a terrific deep catch. Some officials might have called a penalty on the play, but Jeffery got away with it. (You can see the play here atop this post.) Learning what he can get away with is crucial.
Going from Mike Tice to Trestman as an offensive coordinator should be like going from a stubby pencil to a MacBook. The entire Bears offense should benefit, especially Jeffery. Wide receivers coach Mike Groh says Jeffery is "really invested," and we saw enough from him as a rookie to expect a big leap.
Cutler loves throwing to Brandon Marshall, but he also loves to show off his arm with vertical passes. Jeffery, not Marshall, is the best candidate to catch big passes down the field this season. Jeffery never had a problem with injuries before last season, and a broken hand is the ultimate fluke injury.
Combine Jeffery's year of experience, the coaching upgrade and his unique skill set on the Bears roster, and we could see Jeffery developing into a quality No. 2 receiver this season. More than 800 receiving yards with plenty of long scores is a fair expectation.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.