Leading up to the draft, Chicago Football is examining the "other" Bears positions of need. Today, Arthur Arkush breaks down the situation at wide receiver. Also, see our analysis at linebacker.
The Bears have gone from rags to riches at the wide receiver position in Phil Emery’s brief tenure.
After failing to acquire a Pro Bowl wideout in 11 seasons under Jerry Angelo, the Bears sent two receivers – Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery – to Honolulu last season for the first time in franchise history.
The NFL’s most productive WR tandem in 2013 and two of Emery’s best acquisitions to date, Marshall and Jeffery make receiver perhaps the Bears’ strongest position. Marshall, 30, is the alpha dog No. 1, coming off his seventh consecutive 1,000-yard season and a career high 12 touchdown grabs. Jeffery, 24, blossomed into the NFL’s most imposing No. 2 wideout in just his second season, finishing sixth in the league in yards (1,421).
Keeping their dynamic one-two receiving punch intact beyond 2014 isn’t a guarantee for the Bears. Entering a contract year, Marshall will be looking to cash in on what could be his final multi-year deal. Emery must also look ahead to 2016, when Jeffery will demand huge dollars on the open market.
The drop-off behind the pair is significant. Former No. 3 WR Earl Bennett’s release opened the door for 2013 seventh-rounder Marquess Wilson to move up on the depth chart. That’s a big step up for a 21-year old who caught just two balls as a rookie. Veterans Eric Weems and newly-acquired Domenik Hixon, the only other receivers on the roster with a regular-season catch, are primarily special teamers.
The Bears have more pressing needs on the other side of the ball, but targeting a receiver in the middle or later rounds of one of the deepest receiver drafts ever is a distinct possibility. Regardless of Wilson’s development, the Bears would benefit from adding more depth and players to groom for their improving passing game.
Chicago’s top three receivers look impressive coming off the bus. Emery has an affinity for tall, lengthy pass catchers that can climb the ladder and win when the ball’s in the air. Head coach Marc Trestman covets smart and versatile receivers. Marshall and Jeffery produced many highlights in 2013, but Trestman was equally excited when discussing the role they played as downfield blockers. Jeffery’s remarkable improvement in his second season was also a result of his improved route running. And the end around is a staple in the Trestman playbook.
However, the Bears’ receiving corps lacks speed and quickness to stretch the field and turn short passes into explosive plays. Jeffery managed a robust 16.0 yards per reception a season ago, but his size, not speed, is what makes him so difficult to defend. Marshall is a chain-moving machine, but his bread and butter is the intermediate area and red zone.
Former South Carolina receiver and point guard Bruce Ellington could be a target for the Bears if he’s still on the board in Round Three. A former teammate of Jeffery, Ellington’s an electric playmaker with threatening speed, nifty movement skills and strong hands. At just 5-9 and 197 pounds, he’s undersized, but Ellington could be a dangerous weapon in Trestman’s offense, which lacks a agile space player with dependable hands.
Former Division II standout Jeff Janis will have a steep learning curve making the jump from tiny Saginaw Valley State to the pros. But he has size (6-3, 219 pounds) and speed (4.42 40-yard dash) that can’t be taught, and Emery has shown a willingness to target athletes who’ve yet to approach their ceiling. Janis is unrefined, but he could learn a lot from Trestman, Marshall and receiver coach Mike Groh, and might still be available when the Bears are on the clock in the middle of Round Five.
The Bears took a seventh-round flier on Wilson last season. Chiseled Shaq Evans, long-striding L’Damian Washington and Jimmy Garoppolo’s go-to receiver at Eastern Illinois, Erik Lora, are players the Bears could eye in the final round or as priority free agents next month.