- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Well, one thing Alshon Jeffery appears to be is a good sport.
There may have been some question about that after Jeffery was ejected from the Capital One Bowl for fighting with Nebraska’s Alfonzo Dennard last January.
But there was Jeffery Friday with Shea McLellin and the other Bears rookies, shovel in hand, good-natured grin in place as they planted trees in the Austin neighborhood’s La Follette Park as part of a collective effort with Chicago Gateway Green and Friends of the Parks.
The players were required to be there, of course, arriving in a bus with assorted Bears staff and chairman George McCaskey and certainly it was a good cause, though you did sort of wonder about the wisdom of having your top draft picks doing about an hour of serious labor, digging into hard ground, then, in groups of two with two volunteers helping, awkwardly hoisting and planting elm saplings.
This was no photo op. And they were no ordinary little saplings. When one volunteer guessed they weighed about 150 pounds apiece, Jeffery laughingly disagreed. “If it was 150,” he told the young man, “we could lift them easy.”
Jeffery is a little closer to the 200-pound plus trees since losing 15 pounds. He was about 230 that day he was named Most Valuable Player in the Capital One Bowl -- despite the ejection -- after catching four passes for 148 yards in the first half alone in the Gamecocks’ 30-13 victory over the Cornhuskers.
At the time, Jeffery was considered a top 25 draft pick. The season before last -- before his production and South Carolina’s passing game was reduced dramatically -- Jeffery was thought by some to be as high as a top five selection.
Everything from his weight to his work ethic to his ability, or perceived lack thereof, to separate from defenders, was also mentioned among the possible reasons he waited so long on draft day. All the Bears cared about was that the 6-foot-3 Jeffery was available with the 45th pick of the draft.
With Brandon Marshall, it potentially gives the Bears two premier targets for Jay Cutler. It also would seem to allow Earl Bennett to remain in his comfort zone in the slot, where he is the most dangerous. And it alleviates almost all receiving pressure on Devin Hester, whom the Bears can use as the situational weapon he should be.
After the first day of rookie camp, Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice described Jeffery “picking peanuts off some guys’ heads.”
“You can tell that he’s going to be a playmaker for the Bears for 2012, and hopefully for many years to come,” Tice said.
Jeffery said Friday that his biggest adjustment during OTAs thus far is the speed of the NFL game and that he did not feel any less pressure to perform with Marshall on the field.
“Everyone wants to win the NFC and Super Bowl,” Jeffery said, “so we all have high expectations. . . . I’m just trying to learn from him, he’s a great receiver. They’re all good receivers out there. I’m just trying to learn and get better from the vets.”
Foremost among those vets is Cutler, who is countless cuts above what Jeffery experienced with his quarterbacks in college.
“Jay Cutler is a great quarterback,” he said. “He’s always joking with me all the time. I just love being around him and learning from him and trying to understand the game from his mind.”
Asked if he expects his play to be elevated from playing with Cutler, Jeffery said, “Hopefully it elevates both of our play because he’s a great quarterback, he has great experience [and] I’m a rookie, I can learn from him. I’m sure he can tell me the right spots to be in.”
There was no visible attitude from Jeffery as he dug and hoisted with his fellow rookies Friday, but there is still the understated swagger of every great receiver. The Bears have seen this before and that doesn’t always guarantee greatness. David Terrell had a swagger.
“I’m just laid back and cool. I’m not too flashy,” Jeffery said. But flashy or not, he has real ability and now, he also has a genuine support system to help it emerge on the NFL level. It will be fun to see him develop and pick peanuts off guys’ heads.