FREE AGENCY PREVIEWS
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More speed on the outside always nice but Bears see solid core at WR
The annual doubting and trashing of the Bears’ wide receiver group was pre-empted last offseason with the trade of two third-round draft choices for Brandon Marshall, followed on draft weekend by the investment of a second-round pick on Alshon Jeffery.
But beyond their top three wideouts (Marhsall, Jeffery, Earl Bennett), the position will not enjoy another question-free offseason.
The Bears ranked 29th in passing yards, 27th in yards per pass play and 28th in percent intercepted. There was no shortage of places for blame, with the exception of Brandon Marshall, who caught a franchise-record 118 passes, 11 for touchdowns to tie for sixth in franchise history in that area.
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Marshall’s reconnection with quarterback Jay Cutler from their days as Denver Broncos was the only seeming bright spot in the passing offense. But questions grew over whether the preponderance of “targets” to Marshall was creating an unbalanced offense, which it was.
Receivers who know they are not getting the ball will execute their assignments, to a point. As games and the season went on, more than one receiver’s attention waned with their involvement. The result was a self-fulfilling problem: If Cutler was not trusting receivers other than Marshall, their diminishing performance pushed him further toward Marshall. And so on.
Devin Hester admitted publicly that he was not fully engaged at times and Insiders told CSNChicago.com that he was not the only one. Hester did not catch a pass in four of his last five games active and his 23 catches were the fewest of any season since his full conversion to receiver.
Earl Bennett finished with 29 catches, missing two games with a hand injury and another two-plus with a concussion. He finished with one catch in four of his final six games.
Jeffery showed excellent promise early, working his way into the starting lineup but then going down with a hand injury against Jacksonville and a knee injury in the San Francisco game.
Needs assessment: 3 (1-10 scale)
Johnny Knox’s inability to come back from his serious back injury of late 2011 left a lack of speed on the outside, particularly with Hester not developing as a legitimate receiving threat.
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The offense generated 39 passing plays of 20 yards or longer, down from 43 in 2011, in which 13 of those were produced by Knox despite his missing the last two games entirely.
But the expectation with a coaching change with an offensive leaning is that more than Marshall should become an impact player and legitimate threat in different areas of the field.
The West Coast offense was built less on deep throws than on a high percentage of completions and yards after catches, best epitomized by Jerry Rice in his San Francisco years. More of the offense is predicated on three- and five-step drops, meaning fewer deep drops to allow speed receivers time to cover 40 or so yards.
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The Bears see their top three (Marshall, Jeffery, Bennett) as a strong unit and the overall as far less a need area than it was this time a year ago.
As they will in several position areas, the Bears will not invest a high draft choice in the position unless a true can’t-pass talent falls to them. Barring a trade, they do not have a third-round pick and Jeffery was a quality pick at No. 2.
Knox was a fifth-round pick, the range where a draft move makes sense, and the coach staff is solid enough in teaching credentials to develop a receiver fit. The Bears hired Mike Groh as their new receivers coach and while this is his first NFL position gig, he joins a veteran overall offensive staff.
The Bears have moved aggressively for pro additions in the past (Marshall, Muhsin Muhammed) but they have other needs that will command cash and a second-tier addition is more likely than a top-shelf strike.
Best free-agent options (based on value, fit)
Brandon Tate, Cincinnati -- Fair speed on the outside but also brings ability to return punts (10.1 career avg.) and kickoffs (24.8).
Brandon Gibson, St. Louis -- Very productive (174 career catches), may be priced higher than available role (No. 3-4 receiver) in Bears schemes.
Domenik Hixon, N.Y Giants -- 4.4 speed and an accomplished returner with modest reception totals.