The 2016 Chicago Bears wide receiver corps was built to strike fear into opposing secondaries. It was loaded up with talent in the off season and intended to overload opposing team's ability to defend it. Fast forward 6 months and it hasn't exactly worked out that way. Injuries leveled the unit early in the season. Instead of starting a trio of WR's that included one of the top 5 young receivers in the game, a savvy and productive eighth-year veteran in the slot and an amazingly talented 1st-round draft choice on the other side; the Bears trotted out Josh Bellamy, Marques Wilson and undrafted free-agent Cameron Meredith for much of the early season. Not exactly a lineup that makes quarterbacks grin or defensive coordinators shake in their shoes.
The silver lining to that lousy situation was that it allowed both Wilson and Meredith to get some valuable playing time. They showed that they can contribute and are worth developing further. The better news is that Alshon Jeffery is healthy and doing Alshon Jeffery things again; and that is very good news indeed. Since his return 3 weeks ago he has averaged 9.6 catches and 138 yards per game. Alshon is one of the best receiving talents in the league and adds an explosive big-play element to the Bears offense that is clearly lacking when he is absent. That in turn opens up the running game and takes defensive focus off other players (like Martellus Bennett) which allows them to be more productive. Based on his production since returning from injury, Jeffery has cemented his place in Chicago for next season (at least), likely as the Bears franchise tag target.
The addition of Eddie Royal this year had me very excited. I thought he would add a very productive speed threat out of the slot position in Adam Gase's offense. Royal has been a steady player with good hands over the course of his career, but he's had very limited offensive impact this season. He has had 26 catches but for only 171 yards, a very tame 6.6 yards per grab. Add in only 1 touchdown over the first half of the season and you have a player that has not lived up to the lofty expectations that many fans had when he arrived.
Kevin White has all the skills to be a tremendous contributor in the Bears offense. Sadly, leg injuries have delayed the prospect of witnessing any of that impact so far. White will make plays; he is too talented not to. The shame is his on-field development has been postponed by an entire year. He has a strong work ethic, the ability to learn and a positive outlook; all assets that could help make him the next great receiver in Chicago. However this year he'll be taking mental reps, rehabbing and getting ready to show the world the player he will be next year.
Marquess Wilson has waited a long time and worked very hard for the chances he's getting this season. His path to the pros was not smooth and his early years in the league were marked with limited opportunity and untimely injury. This year was different. He was healthy and ready when the chance to get on the field presented itself. While he only has 19 catches, he has averaged 16.7 yards per grab (almost 3 times more than Eddie Royal's average). That kind of distance has made a difference, helping to offset the loss of Alshon's big-play impact while he was out with injury. If the rest of the receiving corps gets healthy next year, the Bears could have the most talented 4th WR (Wilson) in the league. That reality would be worrisome for almost any defense the Bears face.
The rest of Chicago's pass-catching lineup is rounded out by Josh Bellamy, Cameron Meredith and Marc Mariani. Bellamy is what he is: a journeyman. He can fill in as a spot starter and be a 4th or 5th wideout when you need it, but he is not going to make the big grab or command serious defensive attention. Meredith has shown some nice ability as a WR for a former college QB who only converted to catching passes during his last 2 years in school. He has good size (6'3", 207) and catches the ball consistently enough to warrant his spot on the roster as a very good, low-cost developmental option. Mariani has underwhelmed as both a returner and a receiver this year to the point where I would not consider his roster spot safe in any way.
The Bears depth chart at WR looks as good as any unit in the league... on paper. However this season has showed that reality on the field does not always line up with management's carefully crafted plans. Maybe Chicago lowballs an offer to Alshon in the offseason due to his injury history (doubtful). Perhaps they cut bait with Eddie Royal due to his lack of performance (also doubtful). It's even possible that an untimely injury at the end of this season supplies a setback to the receiver corps that will last into next year. Teams have to be ready for any eventuality at any position, so the Bears will certainly scout WR's this year, just like they do every year.
Josh Doctson, Wide Receiver, Texas Christian University
Doctson is explosive and the most productive playmaker for the prolific TCU offense. At 6'3" and 195 pounds he has the size that the Bears clearly like in their receiving corp (Jeffery, White, Wilson and Meredith are all 6'3" or taller). Josh combines excellent size with a receiver skill set is well above average and bordering on special. His impressive production this season illustrates how many ways he can win against defenses. With 3 games left on the schedule he has already amassed 78 catches, 1315 yards and 14 scores. Those numbers land him third in the nation for receptions, first overall for yards and second for TD catches.
It is rare to see a WR dominate to the point where he simply takes over a game. Doctson demonstrated that kind of ability this year against Texas Tech. He steamrolled his team victory, ending up with 18 grabs, 257 yards and 3 scores on the day. He was unstoppable in that game but he has produced big numbers in almost every contest this year. Despite that, he doesn't need a ton of targets to do damage. Against SMU he only caught 5 balls, but turned those 5 catches into a whopping 171 yards (34.2 yard average!) and a mind-numbing 3 TD's. That is stupefying production based on 5 touches and clearly illustrates the game-changing nature of his talent.
Doctson is one of the best deep ball receivers in college football. He is borderline magical with the ball in the air deep down field. His ability to beat coverage and make catches in those instances is uncanny, to the point where you are almost surprised when he doesn't make the play. He effortlessly combines so many elements into making spectacular plays on deep throws:
- Easy and deceptive long-striding speed
- Great leaping ability makes his catch radius immense
- Very long arms and strong hands
- Superior ability to spot and track the ball from very early on in its flight
- Subtle shifts to throw off DB's who are reading his body movements (he sets defenders up and then shifts away to snare the ball)
- Very aggressive physically in the air - believes every deep ball belongs to him
- Body control that is as good as anyone playing football on any level today (not an overstatement - he is just flat-out graceful)
Watching him win down the field over and over again is mesmerizing and special. That ability alone makes him a threat from day one in the pro game, but he has other strengths as well. He is a willing and able blocker, especially on outside runs. His long arms and aggressive nature make him a valuable asset in this important facet of the game. Josh is also more than willing to make possession-type receptions over the middle when it is called for. He displays no fear and is fairly deft at avoiding the big hit that often accompanies catches in that area of the field.
Despite his obvious and overwhelming strengths, Doctson still has room to grow and mature as a receiver. He'll need to keep working to ensure he maximizes his talents and polishes up some of these rough spots in his play:
- Although he is catching 80% of his targets, he does have the occasional concentration drop when he takes his eyes off the ball too quickly
- Rounds off his routes
- Kind of just muscles through the jam, it's effective but he could more with both his hands and feet to get free more quickly
- Needs to work on starting his routes with consistency to disguise his destination, and use fakes early in the routes rather than just later on down the field
- Is not much of a "yards after the catch" guy on underneath tosses; doesn't make too many people miss if they are in front of him
- Doesn't run the full route tree yet - doesn't mean he can't, just that he did not have to at TCU
While the Bears depth at WR looks loaded on paper it could look very different with the subtraction of just a couple of players for any reason (contract, injury etc.). Today's passing-focused NFL demands that you have players who can compete and win for big gains through the air (the Bears resurgence since Alshon's return is shining example of this). The bottom line is that nobody in college football is any better at catching passes deep down the field than Josh Doctson.
Making Their Mark (2015 draftees who are thriving in the pro game)
Jameis Winston (QB, Buccaneers) - Fair is fair, and Jameis has earned his way into this spot. Early in the season he was featured in the "Failure to Launch" section below following a bunch of bad missteps. But lately he has turned it around in a big way. In his last 4 games he has not thrown an interception and twice had a QB rating over 120. The Bucs aren't winning yet due to a myriad of factors, but Winston is showing he is capable of leading the team and being part of the solution rather than the problem in a Tampa Bay turnaround.
Byron Jones (FS, Cowboys) - Jones is a talented athlete with excellent instincts who fell in the draft only because of an injury. When he was healthy Byron put up some excellent tape shutting down high-profile WR's. However a shoulder injury late in the season limited him in the pre-draft process and the Cowboys benefited, selecting him late in the 1st round (27th overall). Former-Bear and current-Cowboy defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli was recently asked about Jones and said "I can't remember one, really, as a rookie coming out and playing as well as he has". Marinelli has seen more football players than most in his lifetime and that is high praise coming from an old-school coach.
Failure to Launch (slow starters on the NFL stage)
DeVante Parker (WR, Dolphins) - Not much has gone right in Miami this season and Parker's rough start mirrors that. He is struggling with lingering foot issues but has appeared in 7 games and only has 4 receptions for 49 yards in those appearances. I'm excited to see what he can do when he gets healthy, because at Louisville last year he was a game changer.
Reel-to-Real (tips for watching game film on your favorite players)
Hijacked by highlights: do not be swayed by all the good stuff a player does packed into one 4-minute bundle. "But EJ..." I can hear you asking, "haven't you included a highlight clip in every one of your Draftwatch columns?" Why yes, yes I have. Highlights are good for primarily one thing: entertainment. They take all of the breathtaking stuff a player does and show you only that. It makes them tons of fun but very, very limited as a scouting tool. The best recent example I have is Ahmad Dixon, a safety from Baylor.
I watched his highlight reel early in the scouting process and got really excited about what he could bring to the table. Then I started watching full game tapes and found that for every big/good/amazing play, he had 2 or 3 really bad ones to go with it. Missed coverages, late hits and lots of penalties were common. Dixon actually ended up on the Bears for short time last season. He played special teams and I warned WCG readers about what his college film showed. He was off the team in a matter of weeks, due largely to his loose cannon nature and inability to play under control.