The Chicago Bears made a bold decision to start the 2015 season, trading receiver Brandon Marshall to the New York Jets for a fifth-round pick.
Marshall was by far the most productive receiver in franchise history during his three seasons in Chicago. He set team marks in single-season catches (118) and receiving yards (1,508) his first year with the team and caught 31 TD passes from 2012-2014.
GM Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox weren't interested in Marshall's destructive locker-room presence and shipped arguably the greatest pass catcher in team history to the Jets. Even with Alshon Jeffery still in fold, the loss of Marshall left a gaping need at the receiver position heading into last year's draft.
As a result, Pace used the 7th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft on West Viriginia WR Kevin White.
A JUCO transfer, White had just one good season for the Mountaineers in 2014 (109 catches, 1,447 yards, 10 TDs). The 6-3, 215 pounder then blew the top off the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine, posting a 4.35 40-yard dash and 23 reps in the bench press.
Physically, White has elite-level speed, size and strength, which compelled the Bears to draft him in the Top 10 overall as Marshall's long-term replacement.
Yet White didn't play his rookie season after having surgery to repair a fractured shin, which involved the insertion of a stabilizing rod.
Heading into the 2016 campaign, White has stated he's fully healthy and ready to be the player the Bears expect him to be.
“There were rough days but I knew I would get back to that point. It was just a matter of time when," White said during OTAs. "But as far as getting back to 100 percent, [it was] a couple months ago. I’m not sure exactly when but I feel good now. That’s all I’m worried about moving forward.”
Even at 100 percent, White in 2016 is the biggest question mark on a team full of question marks.
First off, how will the surgery affect his speed and cutting ability, if at all. Speed has always been critical to White's game, so if he's no longer able to take the top off opposing defenses, what's left?
We won't know the answer to that question until we see White on the field. There's no way to tell at this point whether or not he's lost a step.
But let's assume the surgery didn't impact his speed and he's still the 4.35 player he was coming out of WVU. What are realistic expectations for White in what is, in reality, his rookie season?
To answer that question, let's take a look at the first-year production of each receiver drafted in the Top 10 overall between 2005-2015.
Based on the production of the past 14 receivers drafted in the Top 10 overall, it's safe to assume White's totals in 2016 will land somewhere near 47 catches, 683 yards and 5 TDs.
Take it a step further and consider the time he spent with the team last season in the meeting rooms, weight rooms and on the sidelines, and even getting in two weeks of solid practice late in the year before being placed on IR. Those account for something, as there's no learning curve for White to overcome this season in terms of learning the offense and the playbook.
“[I gained] knowledge of the game," White said. "Trying to be a technician. Seeing guys like Alshon, Eddie Royal, other receivers, seeing how Jay communicated over to them, how Jay wanted it done. Just trying to take everything and trying to get better. Last year, not playing, I learned a lot from different kinds of guys. Being on the sideline, I’ve seen a lot. I know how Jay wants it done so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains is changing very little to Adam Gase's offense, so White should be able to hit the ground running. Let's say that's worth a 10-percent bonus in rookie-year production, which would result in a 2016 season with 51 catches, 751 yards and 5 TDs.
Take it a step further and consider the state of the current offense. Jay Cutler's two most reliable targets, Matt Forte and Martelllus Bennett, now play on the east coast. There are serious pass-catching concerns at both tight end and running back, while depth at receiver is questionable at best.
It's safe to assume that White and Alshon Jeffery are going to outpace the rest of the team in targets by a large margin. Cutler loves slinging the ball deep to tall receivers and now he has two 6-3 towers at his disposal.
In addition opposing defenses are going to focus most of their attention on Jeffery, which is going to give White plenty of one-on-one opportunities to take advantage of his size, speed and strength.
Also, White's size will be a major weapon near the goal line, which should result in a healthy dose of red zone targets.
When you factor in all those variables, White should be able to reach a rookie-year stat line of 60 catches, 800 yards and 8 TDs, assuming he stays healthy.
If Jeffery has another Pro Bowl-caliber campaign, then getting 60-800-8 from White would ensure Cutler and the Bears' passing attack two viable, explosive and dangerous pass-catching options.