The Chicago Bears ended their long suffering search for a number one wide receiver with the addition of Brandon Marshall this offseason. However, Phil Emery wasn't done with remaking one of worst (and smallest) receiving corps in the NFL, and traded up in the second round of this year's draft to select Alshon Jeffrey. Adding the 6'4" Marshall gave Jay Cutler the true #1 receiver he's lacked since joining the Bears, but drafting the 6'3" South Carolina product could firmly place the Bears' receiving group as one of the better receiving corps in the NFL.
Jeffrey began OTAs practicing with the second team in the slot, but recent reports have him splitting first team reps with Marshall, Devin Hester, and Earl Bennett at all three WR positions (X, Y, and Z). With his conditioning issues behind him thus far, Jeffrey's next challenge will be proving to Mike Tice that he belongs on the field as a starter or backup, rather than receiving the limited playing time of past rookies under Lovie Smith. Let's take a look back at rookie season performances by wide receivers taken in the second round from each of the past five drafts to see what could be in store for the Bears and their rookie wideout.
Last week's look back at past rookie performances by defensive ends provided some prospective on what Shea McClellin could bring to the team in year one. In essence, there is a wide range of rookie performances for former first round draft picks, but with a lot of players seeing limited playing time and/or providing a limited impact, getting 4-6 sacks and 20-40 tackles would be a solid rookie year for McClellin. For Jeffrey, he faces a similar stigma that exists against rookie receivers having solid rookie campaigns.
The old adage you here with receivers is: don't expect too much their rookie year. All rookies are getting integrated into professional football by learning new techniques, new playbooks, and new positions. Rookie wide receivers also have to deal with a new quarterback and professional caliber cornerbacks (except for the Lions, ha! Author's note: the Lions from a few years ago, they are a smidge better now), in addition to going from - at least as far as first and second round receivers are concerned - going from being option #1 to option two or three.
So, what's the highest level of performance we could expect to see from Jeffrey? Below is a list of wide receivers drafted in the second round in the last five years, and their rookie year production. We've broken them up into three categories (Starter level, Contributor, Non-Factor) to try and get an idea about where Jeffrey's season will end up. Starter level players are generally producing 40+ catches during year one and starting at least half their team's games, while Contributors have some affect off the bench (20-35 catches and a few touchdowns) but obviously not putting up #2 wideout numbers. Non-Factor players are, obviously, useless in year one. Here's your starter level guys:
Out of the twenty-one receivers chosen in round two from 2007-2011, six guys had solid impacts on their teams. Eddie Royal's rookie year with Cutler is obviously the standout year amongst this six, but Fast Eddie hasn't been able to find anywhere near that level of performance since then. Each of the three 2011 rookies did have some problems during the season despite their solid numbers: Little caught 61 but dropped 30 (approx.), Young had and continues to have maturity issues, while Smith was slowed early in the year by injuries and inconsistency. Jeffrey will probably only hit these levels if he ends up starting by week 10 or so; Young caught 48 balls as a slot receiver, but Jeffrey will be fighting with both Hester and Bennett for looks behind the top dog Brandon Marshall. Having two giant receivers on the field most of the time, however, would be awesome to see and show us a brand new dimension to the Bears' offense. If Jeffrey ends up with totals looking like any of these six, that should be a great year for him and our offense.
The Contributors group includes guys that played, but likely didn't start, and were likely in the top four on their team's depth chart at wideout. These players didn't provide an instant impact, but if the presence of Marshall makes Hester a better receiver, and Bennett is healthy and solid, Jeffrey could put up similar numbers to these guys. And being a second round contributor doesn't mean you're career is doomed; Nelson is a stud for the Packers, and Rice is solid when healthy.
(*Cobb also had a punt and kickoff return for touchdown, making him a solid contributor in year one.)
(#You can argue that Tate shouldn't be a contributor since he didn't have a touchdown and only got 21 balls and I'd understand. But its way better than the next group of guys.)
Couple of things stand out from this group. Number one: man, was 2008 a terrible year to draft a WR in round two! Number two: only two players rebounded in some way after their rookie years, Steve Smith and Jerome Simpson. Each have had one solid season, but otherwise have been disappointments for different reasons (injury-related and criminal-related) and are both on at least their second team. The rest of these guys are either barely scraping by as NFL players (like Devin Thomas) or already forgotten (Dexter Jackson career stats: goose eggs, all around).
Conclusion: As far as second round rookie receivers go, the better you do in year one, the better your chances of having a solid career. For Jeffrey - and, in my opinion, the Bears' offense - the sooner he can stake a claim for starter reps the better. The longer it takes for him to get on the field, the less likely that he ends up being the receiver we need him to be.
Projection: 45 catches, 578 yards, 5 TDs. Name your projection in the comments section.