In 2017, the Chicago Bears’ three best wide receivers ranked 40th, 70th, and 79th among the 116 who played enough snaps to qualify for the Pro Football Focus leaderboard. Had Markus Wheaton played a few more snaps, his grade would have ranked 94th. You may not have needed PFF’s advanced metrics to explain how much the Bears’ receivers corps struggled in 2016, but they certainly confirm what we thought.
No position group will be under the microscope like the Bears’ receivers this offseason. Whether it comes via the draft, free agency, or trades, change is coming to a unit that needs it. To what extent is the only question left to be unanswered.
WHO’S UNDER CONTRACT?
Kevin White will enter the fourth year of his rookie deal and it’s possible the team won’t pick up the fifth-year option on the oft-injured wideout. In that sense, you can draw a direct parallel between White and cornerback Kyle Fuller, whose fifth-year option wasn’t picked up in 2017. In short, 2018 will be a prove-it year for White, who has 21 catches in five games in his first three seasons with the team.
The first year of Markus Wheaton’s two-year deal was ravaged by injuries. An appendectomy caused him to miss time early in training camp, a broken finger led him to miss regular season games, and a groin injury forced him to sit out games in the middle of the year. Expected to be a vertical threat in an offense that desperately needed it, Wheaton made just three catches in 11 games.
The team also signed Tanner Gentry, DeMarcus Ayers, and Mekale McKay to reserve/future contracts earlier in the offseason, and still have Nelson Spruce on the practice squad. The training camp competition among that group to see if anyone can emerge will be worth keeping an eye on this summer.
EXITING FREE AGENTS
Cameron Meredith and Josh Bellamy are restricted free agents. The Bears are expected to retain him as he recovers from an ACL injury that kept him out of action in 2017. Bellamy has his issues with drops, but there were times where he was the only receiver creating separation. He is also a core special teams contributor, so we can’t dismiss his importance in that phase. For what it’s worth, Mitch Trubisky posted a 91.5 rating when throwing to Bellamy in the second half of 2017 – which includes this beauty of a pass.
Kendall Wright was the only receiver who signed with the Bears as a free agent last summer to provide a net positive in 2017. His 76.3 overall grade was the best among the Bears and ranked 40th by PFF’s grading scale. Dontrelle Inman, who was acquired in a midseason trade with the Los Angeles Chargers, is also a free agent.
WHO COULD BE CUT BEFORE THE LEAGUE NEW YEAR BEGINS?
The Bears could save $5 million in cap space by releasing Wheaton, whose injury issues kept him from building a rapport with both of the team’s starting quarterbacks in 2018.
Potential cap savings: $5 million ($750,000 dead money)
HOW CAN THE BEARS ADDRESS/UPGRADE THE POSITION?
The Bears have the eighth pick in the upcoming NFL Draft and could use it on Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, who is college football’s top wide receiver prospect. Ridley has often been mocked to the Bears with the eighth pick, even though a popular thought among draft pundits is that it might be considered a reach if that happens. Then again, there was a belief at one point last year that no quarterbacks were worthy of first-round selections. Three went in the top-12.
GM Ryan Pace could decide to go in a different route on draft weekend and attack the position with a Day 2 pick like Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk or possibly with a Senior Bowl standout later. There were 44 wide receivers invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, so the Bears will get a good look at the top prospects shortly.
Attacking needs in free agency is like walking a tight rope. So while the Bears have had some high-profile misses, the construction of those contracts has done little-to-no long-term damage to the team’s salary cap situation. That means the team is in a position to pounce on the right free agents without many (if any) limitations. Allen Robinson (Jaguars) and Jarvis Landry (Bears) sit at the top of the class, but both could be retained by their respective teams with the franchise tag. If either makes it to free agency, each is considered to be the best fit for the Bears this offseason.
Marquise Lee of the Jacksonville Jaguars is a former All-American who could slide to the Bears if Robinson and Landry are ultimately unavailable. Albert Wilson is the free agent most familiar with Matt Nagy’s system and looks to be on the brink of taking on a bigger role in the offense. Even though he isn’t a big-name receiver, Wilson might just be the perfect fit.
We have previously discussed the idea of Oakland’s Michael Crabtree and Pittsburgh’s Martavis Bryant (on multiple occasions!) as possible trade targets. While it’s not believed to be the Bears’ primary option to upgrade at receiver, it’s still a path worth exploring.