The Chicago Bears secondary has been dissected often this offseason, and deservedly so.
After all, the team has had a long-standing hole at safety, and looked to be in a position to take one early in a draft full of high-end prospects. Of course, they didn’t. Instead, they drafted Eddie Jackson in the middle rounds to go with free-agent addition Quintin Demps.
Chicago also cut ties with Tracy Porter, a cornerback who put forth one of his worst seasons while playing the most snaps at the position on the team. That led to us taking a step back and examining the cornerback position in the wake of that particular shakeup, especially after the team signed free agents Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper earlier in the offseason.
Fast forward to June and the Bears’ secondary is pretty set. The team projects to have at least three new starters with Amukamara and Cooper playing on the outside at cornerback, as well as Demps sliding into one of the two safety roles. After last season, it was evident that the secondary was a place in which the Bears needed to add experience, playmakers, and experienced playmakers.
And here is why:
3 receiver sets have become the norm in the NFL pic.twitter.com/zPKwCsKgdM
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 29, 2017
Ten years ago, three-receiver sets were relatively rare, as teams used them 31 percent of the time. But since then, the usage of these particular offensive lineups has been on the rise. In 2013, three-receiver sets were used more than half the time by NFL offenses – a jump of 20 percentage points in a seven-year span. Three years after that, the number is at nearly 60 percent.
NFL offenses used three-receiver sets at a 59 percent rate in 2016, which means opposing defenses were likely lining up in nickel formation to counter those looks. That means one fewer linebacker, and one more defensive back – unless you would dare match up a linebacker on a receiver. It wouldn’t be a wise move, considering that teams who throw out the most three-receiver sets are often going to have three more-than-competent pass catchers out in formation. And you don’t even have to look outside the division for examples of why this has become so popular.
Take the Green Bay Packers for example.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers often finds himself in three-receiver sets, with Randall Cobb usually lining up as the slot receiver. Cobb earned an 81.0 grade from Pro Football Focus in 2016, making him the 22nd highest-graded receiver by the site’s standards. And to think, he is only two seasons removed from making the Pro Bowl on the strength of a 1,287-yard campaign with 12 touchdowns. Cobb is a stellar receiver who can stretch the defense vertically and also work the middle of the field, opening things up for Jordy Nelson on the outside.
Stefon Diggs is another receiver in the division who can wreck a defense from the slot. Diggs was PFF’s 16th best receiver last year, earning an 82.6 grade. A fifth-round selection (146th overall) in the 2015 NFL Draft, Diggs has had back-to-back breakout seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. Diggs’ 2016 was nothing short of spectacular, especially when considering Sam Bradford was his quarterback. He gained 903 yards, caught 75 percent of the passes thrown his way, and scored three touchdowns.
It’s evident that offenses are shifting their schemes to combat defenses by attempting to beat them vertically and in the middle with skilled pass catchers. Defenses have to counter by lining up extra defensive backs, but not just any third corner will do when teams are using high-end talent as slot receivers. The Bears seem to be in decent shape, at least as far as one side of the ball is concerned. Cre’von LeBlanc was the Bears’ top slot corner as a rookie last season, flashing big play potential in his best game against a pretty good quarterback in Matthew Stafford. Meanwhile, Bryce Callahan was a highly regarded player at the position a year ago at this time. Both will likely see time in that role – especially if the trend of using three-receiver sets continues to grow.
However, at some point the Bears’ offense will need to step its game up and catch up with the rest of the NFL.
Even when the team had Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery out wide and Martellus Bennett at tight end, they didn’t get great production out of the slot receiver. That still projects to be the case in 2017, as the Bears look to have an open competition with the likes of Kendall Wright, Victor Cruz, and Markus Wheaton all in line to by vying for some time as the team’s slot receiver. On film, Wright looks like he could be the team’s most versatile receiver, while Wheaton showed in Pittsburgh he could play inside and out … albeit, with Ben Roethlisberger slinging the pigskin. And then there is Cruz, who head coach John Fox envisions as a player who fits that role nicely.
While the Bears are set up to get off the bus running with Jordan Howard, the team shouldn’t limit its offensive options. Proper use of three receiver sets could set Howard up to have some big gains with a different set of holes based on the coverages and personnel groupings teams have to use to defend three receivers.
It will be interesting to see how the Bears offense adapts in this new era of football, because it appears as if the defense is ready to take it on.