Most analysts believe the Chicago Bears passing attack, which finished fifth best last year in Marc Trestman’s first season at the helm, will be even better in 2014. Returning all 11 offensive starters under the same playbook, expectations are through the roof.
The wide receiver position features two Pro Bowlers, yet there are legitimate concerns regarding depth. If either of Chicago’s top two pass catchers is injured, who can step in and fill that void? In addition, can one receiver emerge to replace the departed Earl Bennett as the club’s slot receiver?
With minicamps and OTAs in the books, and training camp less than two weeks away, let’s break down the Bears wide receivers in preparation for Bourbonnais.
It’s difficult to quantify the impact Brandon Marshall has had on Chicago’s offense the past two seasons. He has already broken numerous franchise records and has aided in the development of the younger wideouts. In addition, he’s served as a vocal team leader and he’s been a model citizen off the field.
Marshall has been everything the Bears could have asked for when they traded for him in 2012, and more, which is why he was given a three-year contract extension this offseason.
At 30 years old, Marshall still has plenty of good years left in him. He’s averaged 109 catches, 1,401 yards, 11.5 touchdowns and one Pro Bowl appearance per season since coming to the Windy City. That won’t change this year.
Yet his value extends to the run game as well, where he is easily the best blocking wideout in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, Marshall graded +18.0 as a blocker in 2013, which was nearly three times higher than any other receiver in the league.
Marshall was his usual dominant self during offseason activities, so expect another monster season from the five-time Pro Bowler.
THE EMERGING STAR
Alshon Jeffery played like a Top 10 NFL wideout during his breakout campaign last year, one in which he finished sixth in the league in receiving yards (1,421). He was not only reliable as a possession receiver but Jeffery emerged as one of the best deep-ball pass catchers in the NFL.
Typically, pro receivers hit their stride during Year 3, meaning Jeffery could get even better this season. In OTAs and minicamp, he was a huge part of the offense and was given plenty of jump-ball opportunities. He even made a couple of highlight reel grabs, just for kicks.
Assuming he stays healthy, Jeffery could challenge Marshall in every single offensive category this year. He’s just that good. Jeffery could be in line for a very special season.
The Bears released Earl Bennett this offseason and are now counting on Marquess Wilson to fill the role of slot receiver. The former seventh rounder caught just two passes his rookie year, so the coaching staff is taking a leap of faith in a receiver with very little experience.
Wilson bulked up this offseason and added 15 pounds. He’ll enter training camp at a healthy 205, up from 190 last year. The extra weight is noticeable and should serve him well when attempting to fend off defenders when the ball is in the air.
Remember, Wilson is a 6-3 wideout with 4.4 speed, one who was considered a potential first-round selection following a stellar sophomore campaign at Washington State. Maturity has been an issue with Wilson but in talking with him the past month, he’s shown a lot of growth.
Wilson looked very athletic in OTAs and minicamp. He was an integral member of three-receiver sets with the first team and made a handful of very impressive catches, while limiting the drops.
If Wilson steps into the No. 3 role this year and flourishes, he’ll take the passing attack to the next level. Yet if he falters under the bright lights, and Marshall or Jeffery hit the shelf, Chicago’s passing game will struggle.
There will be a wide-open competition in Bourbonnais for the final three or four receiver spots. Veteran Eric Weems is an integral member of the club’s special teams and has a roster spot locked down. Yet Weems saw just 24 snaps on offense last year, so don’t expect him to provide much as a receiver.
Terrence Toliver will enter Bears training camp for the second year in a row. He has great size (6-5, 204) and was a fixture with the second team during offseason activities, even earning a couple of reps with the starters. Yet Toliver must show he’s a playmaker if he wants to secure a roster spot. He was given plenty of jump- and deep-ball opportunities during OTAs and minicamp and he could not reel in pass. He has potential as an X receiver but Toliver has to step up during the preseason.
Chris Williams is tiny (5-8, 175) but he was arguably the most impressive second-team receiver this offseason. He showed an ability to create separation out of his breaks, due mainly to his amazing speed and burst, and was effective catching passes at every level. He’s also one of the main contenders in the team’s kick returner competition. If Williams proves his small frame can withstand the punishment of NFL contact during the preseason, he could find his way on the final 53-man roster.
Josh Morgan, Josh Bellamy, Micheal Spurlock and Armanti Edwards are the outsiders looking in, yet nothing is set in stone at this point. If any of the four can stand out during training camp, he’ll earn the club’s final receiver gig. At this point, special teams will be key, which benefits Spurlock and Edwards, who are competing to be the starting returner.
Of the four, Morgan was the most impressive pure pass catcher during OTAs and minicamp. He runs good routes and has “snatch it” hands.
If both stay healthy, Marshall and Jeffery will again earn trips to the Pro Bowl this year. They are the most dangerous pass-catching duo in the league and will continue to carry Chicago’s aerial attack in 2014.
Wilson appeared fluid and confident this offseason. He truly looked like a starting slot receiver. My money is on him developing into a serious playmaker by mid-season. He’s too big and talented not to have an impact this year.
Weems will make the team and if Toliver is impressive in Bourbonnais, he’ll also lock down a roster spot. The same goes for Williams, who is the most dangerous Bears player with the ball in his hands.
The competition for those final spots will be fierce. If the pressure gets to Toliver or Williams, and one of the other four receivers stands out, particularly Morgan, we could see a few depth chart changes during the next six weeks.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.