The Chicago Bears have never been known for having a great passing offense, but perhaps Markus Wheaton can help the team catch up to 21st century football.
Wheaton signed a two-year deal with the Bears at the start of free agency and represents part of the group that will collectively aim to replace Alshon Jeffery, who left for the Philadelphia Eagles on a prove-it one-year deal. The Bears’ newest receiver is unlike anyone the team has put on its roster in recent years. He is a 5-foot-11 speedster with a knack for making plays down the field.
Things will be different in Chicago, as he won’t line up next to Antonio Brown or catch passes from Ben Roethlisberger, but his role remains the same – stretch the field vertically early, and often.
Player, Age (in 2017) Position
Markus Wheaton, 26, wide receiver
Two years, $11 million ($5 million guaranteed, includes bonuses for catches and receiving yards)
- Season stats: 4 catches (9 targets), 51 yards, 1 TD
- Pro Football Focus Grade: 49.7
Wheaton was limited to three games (two starts) in 2016 because of lingering shoulder injuries. In a very small sample size, Wheaton averaged 12.8 yards per reception, but caught only 44.4 percent of the passes thrown at him. A shoulder problem might do that to you.
Performance Before 2016
- Career stats: 107 catches (187 targets), 1,508 yards, 8 TD, 47 games (22 starts)
- PFF grades: 53.2 (2013), 74.1 (2014), 73.4 (2015)
Wheaton emerged with a solid second season in 2014, catching 53 passes for 644 yards and two touchdowns. However, the breakout didn’t come until a year later when he hauled in 44 passes for 749 yards, and five touchdowns. Playing with a talented group of wide receivers that was headlined by Antonio Brown, Wheaton found a niche as a deep threat. Whether he was lined up on the outside or in the slot, Wheaton possessed the ability to stretch the field vertically, teaming with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to gain huge chunks of yardage.
In 2015, Wheaton averaged 17.0 yards per reception – which ranked ninth in the NFL.
A shoulder injury that was originally believed to be just a bone bruise sidelined Wheaton for most of the 2016 season. Wheaton saw a specialist in November, but was placed on injured reserve shortly after the visit. After a productive stretch of play in 2014-15, Wheaton struggled to find consistency and rhythm in his injury-shortened season.
Where Wheaton Fits
It’s not as if the Bears haven’t put quality receivers on the field of late. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery each had Pro Bowl seasons with the Bears, but those players excelled at running precise routes and using their bodies to leverage position and shield defensive backs from making a play on the ball. At 5-11, 189 pounds, Wheaton doesn’t possess that ability. However, he fits the role of being a speedy vertical threat, something the Bears offense has been missing for quite some time.
How effective Wheaton is in this role will depend on how offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains deploys him, what other receivers the Bears add to the mix, and how he meshes with new quarterback Mike Glennon.
Despite a limited body of work, Wheaton is the most proven receiver on the Bears roster, meaning teams could zero in on him and take away his strengths depending on what other options the Bears put on the field at receiver. Wheaton thrived playing alongside Brown and catching passes from Roethlisberger, neither of whom will be on the Bears in 2017. There will be an adjustment period, but we might not get a better sense of Wheaton’s potential until the roster fills out later in the offseason.
“I wouldn’t want to put myself in a box. I want to do it all.”
In Friday’s introductory press conference, Wheaton didn’t want to put limitations on how he saw things playing out in Chicago. He said he looked forward to playing inside and out, so long as he was making plays down the field and scoring touchdowns. And while he said the two sides didn’t talk about potential special teams contributions, Wheaton said he was open to returning as a specialist.
In 2014, Wheaton averaged 24.7 yards per kick return in 2014, which ranked tied for 13th.