Chicago Bears wide receiver Eddie Royal has a hip injury and did not practice this afternoon. Royal joins receivers Alshon Jeffery (calf), Marques Wilson (hamstring) and Kevin White (on PUP with a shin injury) on the injury report.
Let that sink in for a second.
The rash of injuries at the receiver position is something quarterback Jay Cutler has never before experienced.
“Yeah, I've never been a part of anything like that - all four going down like that,” Cutler said today. “It's a great opportunity for these guys and it's given me an opportunity to work with them and so some hands-on stuff with them. They're excited. I got in the huddle there with these guys and they're all excited to be out there, they want to the ball, they want to do things the right way, so we'll see how it goes.”
While the second- and third-tier players may be excited about the opportunity, the ramifications of their presence on the field are enormous.
And the problem is, we have no idea the severity of each injury or how long each player will be out. The Bears set a precedent with White in terms of their misleading approach to injury information, so for head coach John Fox to say Royal, or anyone for that matter, is “day to day” is as meaningful as my three-year-old daughter saying it.
That leaves Cutler in a tough position, forcing him to adjust on the fly to different pass catchers every practice.
“Yeah it just makes me have to work a little bit harder,” he said. “It makes me have to communicate with them and make sure they know exactly what they're supposed to do, so I've got to be on it on my end as well. It's a challenge for us.”
Adding to that challenge is the chest injury of left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who missed practice yesterday and was limited today.
“It’s just something we’re going to have to manage and monitor,” Fox said. “Like a lot of veteran players, that’s kind of what we do. I think our staff will do a good job of monitoring it and we’ll see how it holds up.”
If Bushrod’s injury lingers, last year’s seventh-round pick Charles Leno will get the starting nod, which would be another less-than-ideal situation for Cutler and the offense.
“Yeah, obviously guys appear on depth charts for a reason,” said Fox. “But we went to the Super Bowl [with Denver] and lost six defensive starters throughout that year, and three of them were Pro Bowlers. So, yeah, I would rather have them in the game but nobody comes to rescue you. That’s not a reality. It can’t happen. So, it’s fluid. It always has been. I’m sure it’s not going to be any different here this year.”
The problem is that if these guys don’t return, while Adam Gase attempts to install his first-year offense, Chicago’s record won’t be any different than it was last year. It’s easy for a playoff team the year before to overcome injuries and make a Super Bowl run, but what chance does a 5-11 team have with two brand new playbooks and five offensive starters, four at the receiver position, on the shelf?
The Bears need their top three receivers to get healthy, otherwise they’ll be banking on a breakout campaign from one of the following backups:
Josh Bellamy (6-0, 208)
Bellamy has good explosiveness and open-field ability. He’s always capable of the big play but he has inconsistent hands. I cannot count the times in practice I’ve seen him make a circus catch, followed by a routine drop. Bellamy’s game resembles a poor man’s Anquan Boldin.
Marc Mariani (6-1, 187)
Mariani is a return specialist but he was surprisingly impressive this off-season as a receiver. He was effective out of the slot, showing good quickness and an ability to separate. He also made a number of splash plays, including acrobatic sidelines catches and diving grabs. Mariani is more than just a kick returner and could have value in three-receiver sets.
Rashad Lawrence (6-1, 197)
Lawrence leads the team in catches (6) this preseason. He has good size and is confident with the ball in his hands. He doesn’t do anything great but Lawrence is decent in all areas.
Cameron Meredith (6-3, 200)
Meredith is the best looking receiver on this roster. He’s fluid and borderline graceful in his motion, with good hands. At 6-3, he presents a legitimate downfield and goal-line threat. Meredith leads the team in receiving yardage (60 yards) this preseason.
A.J. Cruz (5-9, 195)
Cruz was brought in to compete for the return gigs but doesn’t have the size nor speed to play front-line receiver in the NFL. He’s talented but his skill set is not at this level.
Levi Norwood (6-0, 197)
Norwood, an undrafted free agent out of Baylor, is another option in the return game, although it appears Mariani is the runaway choice for that gig. Beyond that, Norwood didn’t make many plays in camp.
Jeremy Kelley, Ify Umodu, John Chiles
Neither of these three receivers has a reception in the preseason and are long shots to make the final roster. The intriguing option is Kelley, signed to fill Kevin White’s roster spot, who is a towering 6-6, 231. He’s worth watching over the final two preseason contests.
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.