Last season, no Chicago Bears position group dealt with as many injuries as the wide receivers.
The top four receivers on the roster missed a combined 35 contests, with three of the top four finishing the year on IR. As a result, Chicago's passing attack finished just 23rd in the league despite improved play from QB Jay Cutler.
Bears brass did very little in free agency to improve the receiver corps, while investing just a seventh-round pick in the draft to the position. Clearly the team feels depth at receiver is sufficient, yet even if everyone stays healthy, there are enough question marks surrounding Chicago's wideouts to cause serious concern for Bears fans.
With training camp just around the corner, let's take a closer look at each wide receiver on the current 90-man roster.
The Bears placed the franchise tag on Alshon Jeffery in late February. He signed the $14.59 million tender the following week, yet the two sides still haven't come to terms on a long-term extension. Both the Bears and Jeffery have stated publicly their desire to work out a long-term deal but the two sides are reportedly still far apart.
If they don't come to an agreement before July 15, then Jeffery will play 2016 under the tag. If that happens, then it's very likely this will be his last season in Chicago.
Jeffery missed seven games last year due to three different soft tissue injuries. Those were the first contests he's missed since his rookie year in 2012. As a result, Jeffery skipped voluntary workouts - to the chagrin of head coach John Fox and GM Ryan Pace - and trained on his own in Florida. He showed up last month for mandatory minicamp and looked like he was in great shape, immediately taking over as his usual, dominant, No. 1 self.
After trading Brandon Marshall last off-season, there were concerns about Jeffery's ability to be the primary wideout. He erased those concerns when on the field by averaging the 8th most receiving yards per game (89.7) in the NFL last year.
So if healthy, there's no reason Jeffery can't produce at a level similar to that of 2013 (89-1,421-7) and 2014 (85-1,133-10). He's an elite NFL wideout with size, speed, sticky hands and the confidence to win nearly every jump ball. He can beat opposing defenses over the top and he's dangerous after the catch on underneath routes. In addition, he's an outstanding blocker in the run game.
Jeffery's one of the best wide receivers in the NFL and, even if he doesn't sign a long-term deal in the next few weeks, he'll again post top-tier numbers this season for Chicago's offense, as long as he stays off the injury report.
The Bears used the 7th overall pick in last year's draft on Kevin White and he fractured his shin a month later. He underwent surgery to repair the shin and missed the entirety of his rookie season.
White was a JUCO transfer and one-year wonder at West Virginia, so the jury is still very much out on him. He has the size (6-3, 213), speed (4.35 40-yard dash) and athleticism to be a Pro Bowl wide receiver at the next level, but he's never played an NFL snap.
There's a chance his elite traits will take over right away and he'll produce immediately as a high-end No. 2 receiver. Yet there's an equally good chance he'll struggle to adjust to the pro game in his first full year in the league.
During OTAs and minicamp, White struggled with drops and alignment, yet he finished with a flurry, making a handful of highlight-reel plays as minicamp wound down. It appeared that the more his comfort level rose, due to weeks of practice repetitions, so did his ability to make plays within the offense.
A likely scenario for White this year would be for him to show inconsistencies through the first half of the campaign, before taking a big step forward in the second half. Once he adjusts to the NFL game and builds his game-day comfort level, his athleticism should take over, which could portend big things for the Bears passing attack during a potential playoff push.
My projection for White this season is 60 catches for 800 yards and 8 TDs. If he approaches or exceeds those numbers, while improving as the season progresses, he'll prove his value as a first-round selection.
The Bears gave 30-year-old Eddie Royal two years of guaranteed money last off-season, so he'll again be the main option out of the slot in Chicago's offense.
He missed seven games due to injury last season, and failed to produce at a high level even when healthy. His best game last year came in Week 4 when he caught 7 passes for 54 yards and 1 TD against the Raiders. That was the peak of Royal's production during his first year in Chicago, which isn't saying much.
In 2015, Royal finished with 37 catches for 238 yards and 1 TD. That's not going to cut it for a second straight season. Remember, Royal has a history with Cutler and that chemistry was supposed to carry over to the game field. That didn't happen, which was a problem last season.
This year, Royal needs to stay on the field and find his role in the offense. In 2013 and 2014 he combined for 109 catches, 1,409 yards and 15 TDs, so there's still plenty of gas left in Royal's tank. He needs to tap into those reserves and be the steady, reliable slot option he's been for most of his career.
With Jeffery and White commanding attention out wide, Royal is going to get plenty of 1-on-1 looks against opposing nickelbacks. He needs to use his quickness and veteran savvy to take advantage of those opportunities and produce as the club's No. 3 pass catcher, otherwise opposing defense are going to send safety help to the twin towers out wide, which could stall the passing attack.
When you break it down, Royal might be the most important piece to the offensive puzzle this season.
Marquess Wilson fractured his foot late last season and finished the year on IR. He again fractured that foot during veteran minicamp and is expected to begin the season on PUP.
There's a chance Wilson won't play this year and it's unlikely, even if he does play, he'll be at 100 percent. Wilson has been a relative disappointment for the Bears the past three seasons and this year could be more of the same. If he can't contribute this season for the Bears, it could be his last in the Windy City.
Marc Mariani was an afterthought in the passing attack last year, as he was signed primarily for his ability as a returner. After injuries decimated the receiver position, Mariani stepped into a primary role and produced. In the second half of the season he posted 22 catches for 300 yards and was the only pass catcher on the team who didn't drop a single pass all year.
Mariani doesn't have great size (6-1, 187) or breakaway speed but he's reliable, both as a returner and a receiver. His lack of athleticism hurts him but if Mariani continues to earn Cutler's trust, he could emerge as a viable No. 4 option while Wilson is on the shelf.
Josh Bellamy is entering his fifth NFL season in 2016 and his third straight with the Bears. In 2015, he played in 16 contests for the first time in his career, tallying 19 catches for 224 yards and 2 TDs.
Like Mariani, Bellamy benefited from the injuries at the top of the depth chart, catching at least one pass in eight games last season. He's not tall but Bellamy is thick (6-0, 215) and has the frame to absorb contact while making catches in traffic. He also showed good downfield prowess, catching touchdown passes of 34 and 48 yards.
Bellamy also provides good value on special teams. He finished 2015 with the second most special teams tackles (10) on the team, as well as a fumble recovery.
Bellamy's biggest issue is drops. In practice and in games, he's prone to balls bouncing off his hands. If he can shore up his hands, there's no reason Bellamy can't secure a spot on the final 53-man roster.
The Bears used their seventh-round pick in this year's draft to select Daniel Braverman, who had the second most catches (109) in the nation last season. At 5-10, 177, he's lacking typical NFL size but Braverman can play.
During off-season activities he was borderline un-coverable, working over opposing cornerbacks on deep, intermediate and short routes. Braverman's quickness was just too much for Chicago's secondary to handle.
Things might change when the pads come on but if Braverman continues to create easy separation during training camp and the preseason, he'll not only earn a roster spot but he'll also contribute as a rookie.
In addition, Braverman will be given an opportunity to earn one of the starting returner gigs, where his agility and straight-line speed could be a major weapon for the third phase.
Cameron Meredith is one of the biggest wideouts on the roster. At 6-3, 207, he has the height and length to be a productive NFL receiver.
Signed as an undrafted rookie out of Illinois State last year, Meredith played in 11 games his rookie season, catching 11 passes for 120 yards. Of all the bubble receivers on the roster, Meredith might have the biggest upside and he's made a number of plays during off-season activities.
The problem for Meredith is that he doesn't play special teams, which puts him behind guys like Bellamy and Mariani. Yet Meredith has a lot of potential and the size to replace Jeffery or White if either gets injured.
The preseason is going to be huge for Meredith, who must make his mark as a tall-bodied wide receiver if he's going to secure a spot on the final 53-man roster.
The Bears struggled on kickoff returns through the first nine weeks last season. The club then signed Deonte Thompson as a free agent and everything changed. In Week 10, Thompson's first game of the season, the Bears ranked 18th in the NFL in average yards per kick return. Over the next seven games, Thompson helped raise that average all the way to 3rd best in the league.
Thompson has blazing speed - he ran a 4.31 40-yard dash at his pro day in 2012 - which sparked the return game in a major way. He was hardly used as a receiver but his two catches on the season totaled 81 yards, or 40.5 yards per catch. As a part-time wideout who can take the top off opposing defenses, Thompson has decent value.
He was re-signed this off-season because of his ability as a returner and he'll get first shot to retain his kick returner role. If he continues to add third-phase value on kickoffs, Thompson has a good chance of again securing a roster spot with the Bears this year.
Kieren Duncan, Darrin Peterson, Derek Keaton
The three undrafted additions to the receiving group, Duncan, Peterson and Keaton are all long shots to make Chicago's 53-man roster.
The likeliest candidate is Duncan, who is diminutive (5-11, 170) but silly fast (4.25 40-yard dash at his pro day). Duncan earned a training camp invite after a solid showing at rookie minicamp and he's continued to flash with the second team offense.
Duncan is quick, runs good routes and has the speed to beat any cornerback over the top. The deck is stacked against him but if Duncan shines during the preseason, he'll easily earn a spot on the practice squad.null