During his first two years in Chicago, Marshall broke franchise single-season records in receptions (118 in 2012) and receiving yardage (1,508 in 2013), while adding 23 touchdown catches. He immediately rekindled the chemistry he’d built with Jay Cutler for three seasons in Denver and filled admirably his role as the club’s No. 1 wideout.
Yet during last season’s horrific 5-11 campaign, Marshall spiraled out of control both on and off the field. He posted 61 catches for 721 yards, his worst totals since 2006, which led to him being traded to the New York Jets for a ham sandwich.
The Bears will enter training camp this season with a number of new faces at wide receiver, a position that is going to going to look mighty different on game days in 2015.
Let’s analyze the 11 wide receivers that will be on hand during three weeks in Bourbonnais.
Jeffery is a Pro Bowl pass catcher who has posted back-to-back stellar campaigns: 89 catches, 1,421 yards, 7 TDs in 2013; and 85 catches, 1,133 yards and 10 TDs in 2014.
Yet during his career Jeffery has played just three games without Marshall, who always commanded most of the attention from opposing defenses. In those three contests as the club’s No. 1, Jeffery’s stat lines read: 4/78/1 - 6/72/1 – 2/34/0.
Those are decent outings but none were dominant. Jeffery is a talented receiver with size, speed and deep-ball savvy but he’s benefited greatly from paying alongside Marshall his entire career.
It’s fair to question how Jeffery will fare with increased attention from opposing defenses. If offseason practices were any indication, he’ll be just fine this year.
During OTAs and minicamps the past few months, Jeffery was absolutely unstoppable. He beat defenders in man coverage, found soft spots against zone coverage and pulled down nearly every 50/50 ball that came his way. The Bears’ secondary has looked helpless against him.
New GM Ryan Pace has added some complementary pieces to the passing attack, so it won’t be as if Jeffery has to do it all on his own. If he continues to dominate in training camp, then watch out, as he could be poised for a record-breaking campaign of his own.
The Bears used the seventh overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft to select Marshall’s replacement: West Virginia wide receiver Kevin White.
White is big (6-3, 215), strong (23 bench-press reps) and fast (4.35 40-yard dash). In terms of athleticism, he’s off the charts, yet he’s far from a finished product.
A JUCO transfer, White played just two years of Division I football, with his only standout campaign coming as a senior: 109 catches, 1,447 yards, 10 TDs in 2014.
That said, the Bears are expecting early returns from their first-round draft pick, so White will see plenty of field time on game days, no matter how quickly he develops.
Development has come slow to this point though. He worked with the second team during OTAs and then was absent from mandatory minicamp two weeks ago due to an undisclosed injury.
For a work-in-progress like White, missed practices this early in his rookie campaign, with the team installing a brand new offense under coordinator Adam Gase, will stunt his growth. Which is why it’s very important that White, who is rumored to have a minor hamstring injury, gets back on the practice field as soon as possible.
If he’s ready to go at the start of training camp and works his way up the depth chart during the preseason, expect White to be a contributor from Day 1. But if his injury lingers, temper your expectations, as it could take him a while to earn the trust of his coordinator and, to a larger extent, his quarterback.
Catching passes from Cutler as a rookie in 2008, Royal posted his best season as a pro: 91 catches for 980 yards.
Since Cutler’s departure from Denver, Royal has been a fairly pedestrian NFL wideout, with catch totals from 2009-2013 of 37, 59, 19, 23 and 47.
Yet there are many reasons to believe Royal will be an integral part of Gase’s offense this year and beyond.
First, the aforementioned chemistry with Cutler cannot be overlooked. Timing is always a critical component between quarterback and receiver. Based on what I saw this offseason, Cutler and Royal were on the same page from Day 1.
Second, the 29-year-old is coming off the second best season of his career: 62 catches for 778 yards. Even though he’s a seven-year veteran, Royal still has plenty left in the tank.
Third, he has a knack for the end zone. Over the past two seasons, Royal caught 15 touchdowns and he had five scoring receptions in 2008.
Fourth, he brings an element of quickness Chicago’s passing attack has lacked for years. His presence out of the slot will occupy defenders between the hashes, opening up passing lanes for White and Jeffery out wide.
It’s unlikely Royal will match his 2008 totals with Cutler but make no mistake, his presence will be a major boost to the passing attack this season.
Wilson was on the verge of a breakout campaign last year before cracking his clavicle in training camp. The injury derailed his 2014 campaign but he bounced back late in the season, grabbing 7 balls for 66 yards against the Detroit Lions in Week 16.
Remember, Wilson is a 6-4, 200-pound receiver who was once considered a potential first-round draft pick. He has the skill set to be very good in the NFL and he’s entering his third season, one in which receivers historically take a step forward.
Wilson has worked with the first team throughout the offseason and has already carved a niche Gase’s system. In the right situation, he could be a very productive No. 2 pass catcher.
Yet in Chicago, will there be enough balls to go around? With Jeffery, White and Royal competing for catches, as well as TE Martellus Bennett and RB Matt Forte, who had 90 and 102 catches last year respectively, how many looks will Wilson be afforded?
In reality, Wilson needs an outstanding training camp, as well as an injury or two, if he’s to earn a substantial role in the offense in 2015.
That said, Wilson is a quality No. 4 option, one who should be able to contribute at a high level if called into duty. Additionally, the new coaching staff is working him on special teams this year, including as a punt returner, which will provide him additional opportunities to be a factor.
The Bears went through a revolving door of return men last season before finally settling on Mariani. He returned 20 kicks for 510 yards (25.5 average) and 1 TD, and returned 7 punts for 29 yards.
Mariani won’t be a factor on offense but his speed and experience give him value in the return game. He wasn’t overly effective as a returner last season but he was steady and did not turn the ball over.
This offseason, he’s resumed his role as the club’s primary returner, although he has plenty of competition, which includes Royal, who is an experienced punt returner.
If Mariani can stay healthy and has a strong preseason, he’ll again be the frontrunner to return punts and kickoffs for the Bears in 2015.
Bellamy had a good training camp and preseason last year – he caught four passes for 78 yards in the preseason finale – which earned him a spot on the practice squad, where he stayed until being called up in Week 15.
Among the large crop of wideouts competing for one of Chicago’s final roster spots, assuming the Bears keep six receivers, Bellamy is the most experienced. He’s never caught a pass in the regular season but he’s shown value on special teams, which is crucial for a back-end roster player.
If Bellamy is again solid in Bourbonnais, he may slip on to the final 53.
Norwood is an undrafted rookie who worked with the third-team offense in minicamps. He hasn’t shown much as a receiver but he’s worth mentioning because of his value as a returner.
In four years at Baylor, Norwood returned 64 punts (8.7-yard average) and 36 kickoffs (20.2-yard average). Special teams coach Jeff Rodgers has been using Norwood and Mariani as his primary punt returners, so if Norwood shines in the preseason, he may end up one of the biggest surprises on the final 53-man roster.
These four youngsters round out the Bears’ receiver corps and will be fighting for a spot on the practice.
Of the four, keep an eye on Meredith (6-3, 200) in the preseason. He looked decent during offseason workouts and has go-get-it ability on deep balls.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.