The 2013 season saw record passing touchdowns, passing yards and completion percentage for the Bears on the strength of right arms belonging to Jay Cutler and Josh McCown, but as much on the continuing upgrade at the receiving end of a higher-percentage passing game. No other team had two receivers in the Top 10 for catches and only Denver and the Bears had two in the Top 10 for receiving first downs.
The additions by GM Phil Emery over the past three seasons – Brandon Marshall in 2011, Alshon Jeffery in 2012, Martellus Bennett in 2013 – accounted for 254 receptions and 24 TDs. Throws to the three (409) represented 40 percent of Bears snaps for the season, and together with the receiving work of Matt Forte and No. 3 receiver Earl Bennett signified a de facto swing from a run-based offense that can pass, to a pass-based offense that can run. Forte’s career-high 1,339 rushing yards were a credit to his running and the upgraded offensive line, but also to a passing game with no easy “covers.”
Seventh-round draft choice Marquess Wilson, while not a contributor on special teams as a rookie, did get on the field. He caught a couple passes, including one in Game 16 against Green Bay, his first career start as the Bears opened in nickel but had Earl Bennett inactive.
Earl Bennett was released in March after declining a second pay cut, and was subsequently signed and released by the Cleveland Browns. Within the few weeks either side of that move, the Bears had signed former New York Giants receiver/returner Domenik Hixon and Washington/San Francisco wideout Josh Morgan in addition to claiming Josh Bellamy off waivers by Washington. Hixon was lost to a non-contact torn ACL during OTA’s that ended his season and possibly more, unfortunately.
Notably perhaps, in keeping with the general Emery operating principle of making the Bears a bigger team, none of those three signees is shorter than 6-feet. And all had at least some NFL experience. The organization was open to undersized receivers but those were in the forms of Eric Weems and Chris Williams, both with value as returners.
The organization also locked up Marshall with a contract extension that removed a potential in-season distraction in addition to ensuring continuity at the highest level with Cutler and the rest of the receiving group.
Training camp will answer…
…whether Wilson can take the necessary next step to establish the No. 3 wideout as a genuine threat. Wilson is 6-4, not the prototypical slot receiver, but Wilson, listed at 184 pounds coming out of Washington State, is now reportedly more than 200 pounds and fitting the mold of Jeffery and Marshall.
Wilson had spectacular collegiate production and fell to deep in the draft because of quitting the WSU team in-season. Now is potentially his breakout time at the next level and he has been running with the No. 1 nickel offense for the most part.
“We’re excited,” said coach Marc Trestman. “But we’re going to wait and see. We’re not going to be easy on guys when they get these opportunities. They don’t want to be anointed and I certainly don’t want to anoint them. They’ve got to earn it.
…whether the newcomers create adequate depth behind the elite starters. As good as Jeffery and Marshall are, the offense was ineffective in 2012 with just Marshall working the outside. Bellamy and Morgan will have opportunities and those may be as backups in camp, but as the defense showed in 2013, backups can make or break seasons.
“We’ve got a lot of different ways to go with these packages,” Trestman said. “We’ve got multiple a tight ends. We don’t have to be a one tight end team. We’ve got guys competing to get on the field and to produce.”
…whether the roster has any security behind Martellus Bennett. Unlike its diminished stature in the Mike Martz years, the tight-end position is an integral part of the passing offense as currently constituted, which is part of why Bennett was a priority signing at the outset of free agency last year.
The Bears gave up on bad-handed Fendi Onobun and have thrown open the competition among Zach Miller, Matthew Mulligan and most recently Jeron Mastud, formerly with Miami and Oakland.
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