Actions speak louder than words, and what the Chicago Bears did this offseason speaks volumes.
If you’ve noticed an offseason pattern of short-term commitments to players who had prior success at previous stops during their respective NFL careers, you are not alone. The Bears signed 12 free agents who have significant starting experience at their respective positions. Clearly, this was a plan they had to attack depth concerns on a roster whose rookies saw the third most snaps in the NFL in 2016.
For what it’s worth, it has been a successfully-executed plan, with as many as eight free agents penciled into starting roles. Of course, it remains to be seen just how successful the additions will actually be when games begin.
Good luck finding a position group of skill players that has seen more turnover than the collection of wide receivers listed on the Bears’ depth chart. General Manager Ryan Pace waved goodbye to Pro Bowl receiver Alshon Jeffery and has gone about rebuilding the receivers room in a unique manner this offseason. The Bears have seven new names in the wide receivers room, and a new position coach, too. Outside of the quarterbacks room, there is no position group that has more intrigue – or more to gain – heading into the 2017 season.
Victor Cruz is the latest addition, but let’s take a step back and look at the group as a whole and try to piece together a productive receivers corps.
Meredith is the best of the returning players and is coming off a season in which he owned the best double-move in football and proved to be an efficient receiver on deep balls. The Illinois State product went from being an undrafted free agent to leading the Bears in targets, catches, and receiving yards. Meredith enters the year as the Bears’ clear cut top option, and someone who could vibe with the skills Mike Glennon brings to the table. Glennon himself said he expects Meredith to have another big year starting in September. If 2017 is going to be Glennon’s year, it probably means it will also be Meredith’s.
Familiar faces, new places
Kendall Wright, Markus Wheaton, and Victor Cruz have had varying amounts of success during their NFL careers. However, none of the aforementioned receivers has been great of late. Hence, each hit the free agent market looking for a chance to bounce back and show they still have what it takes to be a capable NFL receiver. Wheaton is the only one of the three who didn’t sign a one-year deal, but his two-year contract effectively amounts to being a prove-it contract in its own way.
Ideally, at least two of the three emerge as a reliable target this season. Wright has experience in the slot and on the outside from his time with the Tennessee Titans, and those skills could be on display again as he might be the most versatile option on the roster.
Meanwhile, Wheaton showed the ability to be a deep ball threat in Pittsburgh while lining up opposite of Antonio Brown and on the receiving end of passes thrown by Ben Roethlisberger. Wheaton didn’t bring Big Ben with him, but he did average 17.0 yards per reception two years ago, and will be looking to be that kind of player once again in Chicago.
Cruz is a wild card. Like Wright, Cruz signed a one-year deal loaded with incentives. At his best, Cruz was Eli Manning’s gamebreaking receiver with the New York Giants. However, Cruz hasn’t been that kind of player since undergoing knee surgery, and we’re not quite sure what kind of player Cruz will be in Chicago. But at a cost of $2 million, he is a low-risk flier who is motivated to get back into the end zone after being let go by the team that gave him the opportunity to shine.
And to think, Cruz isn’t the only ex-Giants receiver trying to move in and earn some playing time with the Bears. Reuben Randle signed with the team early in the offseason and could force his way into the mix, too.
In all likelihood, the first four receivers on the depth chart will be Meredith, Wright, Wheaton, and Cruz. It will be interesting to see which player(s) end up in the slot, a position that is currently vacant, and which free agents line up outside the numbers.
Undrafted free agents
The Bears signed two undrafted free agent wide receivers, one of whom could have made an argument to being worthy of a draft pick. One of the reasons Wyoming’s Josh Allen is a highly thought of quarterback prospect is because Tanner Gentry was often on the receiving end of his passes. Then again, perhaps Gentry was fortunate to be Allen’s most targeted receiver. In any case, no college receiver was targeted on throws that were in the air for 20 yards or more than Gentry (49 targets) in 2016. Gentry has a clear niche as a deep threat and could force his way into a role as a deep threat this summer after impressing at rookie mini-camp.
Jhajuan Seales is a deep sleeper who needs work on his route running, but has an ideal combination of size, speed, athleticism, and reliable hands. Seales was a four-year contributor at Oklahoma State, averaging 15.9 yards per reception in his career – peaking at 17.8 yards per catch as a junior in 2015. Like Gentry, Seales has a knack for making a big play, too. It’s obvious the Bears have a type when searching through the talent pool of wide receivers.
What about Kevin White?
In an ideal world, Kevin White lines up opposite of Meredith and emerges into a player who was worth using the No. 7 overall pick on in 2015. Realistically, White has played just four games in two years and has some catching up to do in learning Dowell Loggains’ offense. Injuries keeping White out of the weekly lineup not only hurts the team on game day, but also keep him off the practice field, which has hurt his long-term development. It’s been a double whammy for White and the Bears for the last two seasons.
The wide receivers room for 2017 (and beyond)
Perhaps the mounds of depth the Bears have piled on this offseason is with White in mind. After all, Deonte Thompson, Josh Bellamy, and Daniel Braverman were among those who were in on receiving snaps in 2016. No quarterback is going to be successful when a team is going to the sixth, seventh, and eighth options in a pass pattern.
Even still, the Bears have let go of a Pro Bowl wide receiver in two of the last three offseasons, with Alshon Jeffery joining Brandon Marshall in leaving Chicago. At some point, they’ll want to add more Pro Bowl caliber talent at the position sooner, rather than later. But, since it’s not something that can happen over night, these one-year bridge-the-gap types (Wright, Cruz, Wheaton, Randle) are going to have to make the most of their opportunities – especially if they want to stick around for the Mitch Trubisky era.
Because if the Bears want to develop Trubisky the right way, they are best served by upgrading the receiver position. In fact, part of that process might be happening now with the development of young players and the growing competition among veterans in 2017 who could be vying for a spot in 2018 and beyond.