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Bears 2017 training camp battles: Victor Cruz vs. Kendall Wright vs. Markus Wheaton

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The Bears' top two receiver slots are well and locked up. But who exactly is the third option in this group?

Detroit Lions v New York Giants
The veteran Cruz faces a tall task against younger competitors in camp.
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

If you wanted one apt word to describe the Chicago Bears' receiving core going into training camp, uncertainty would fit the bill.

Outside of No. 1 receiver Cameron Meredith, who led the Bears in almost every relevant receiving statistic in 2016 and who is reportedly 100-percent recovered from a thumb injury suffered earlier this summer, there's not a lot of room for blind optimism. Uncertainty clouds almost every other primary receiver on the Bears' depth chart.

That uncertainty looms even with the clear-cut No. 2 in 2015 No. 7 overall pick, Kevin White, who has played in four of a possible 32 games through the first two years of his career due to leg injuries. A disastrous start for an incredibly raw player coming out of college in West Virginia with plenty of promise.

Yet the Bears have not given up their steadfast belief in White as general manager Ryan Pace has maintained to the Chicago Tribune: "I still have a lot of confidence in him." White himself has also recently said "I'm not really worried about any injuries," as he's only focused on finally contributing all of or at least most of an NFL season. But uncertainty will surround White until he can clear his previous obstacles and put it all together as a professional for the first time.

For now, all that matters is that White's being given every opportunity to start next to Meredith. Because after these two hopeful rising 24-year-olds, the battle to be the third receiver becomes murky.

One of Victor Cruz, Kendall Wright, and Markus Wheaton will be Chicago's third skill position option in the passing game. One will have a slightly lesser role. And one may be phased out altogether unless the Bears set up specific packages with a bevy of receivers or spread out defense's with five wideouts (not likely for this heavy offense).

Someone has to become a quarterback-friendly, favorite target.

Backgrounds

Cruz

Age: 30-years-old

Height: 6-foot

Weight: 204 pounds

Experience: 8th season

Wright

Age: 27-years-old

Height: 5-foot-10

Weight: 191 pounds

Experience: 6th season

Wheaton

Age: 26-years-old

Height: 5-foot-11

Weight: 189 pounds

Experience: 5th season

Other than uncertainty, a common theme surrounding this trio is underuse, particularly because of circumstances out of their control.

First there's Cruz, he of the famed salsa touchdown dance, and who was once a Second-Team All-Pro and is a former Super Bowl champion with the New York Giants.

Those days of tearing up the league for the 30-year-old are way behind him, though, as a patellar tendon injury suffered in 2014 has robbed Cruz of the last three years of his career in what should've been his prime. The Cruz you saw catch 241 passes from 2011 to 2013 is now a receiver resorted to spot duty that topped out at 586 yards receiving yards last year.

Part of that was due to playing with Odell Beckham Jr. - one of the game's two or three best receivers - and the promising Sterling Shepard, and part of it was likely also Cruz having legitimately lost a step because of his knee injury.

Cruz, however, didn't see either of those scenarios and instead publicly lamented that the Giants intentionally limited him so as to make his pending release in May easier to swallow publicly.

“Let’s say I played well and I was a 1,000-yard receiver last year; it would’ve been more difficult from a fan perspective to cut me. If I’m a 1,000-yard guy, they’re like ‘Well why are you cutting Cruz? He just had 1,000 yards, he had five or six touchdowns. That doesn’t make sense.’ But if I have about 500 yards or whatever the case may be, it’s a little easier on the fans to be like ‘Oh, he didn’t play well, so that’s why they cut him.’”

Whether you believe his conspiracy theory or not, Cruz is now on a one-year prove-it deal with the Bears, hoping to revitalize his career. If there's anything tangible left in the tank aside from veteran mentorship of the Bears' young receivers, he could be a great piece on offense.

Meanwhile, free agent signing Kendall Wright also waxed poetically about similar problems with his former team in the Tennessee Titans. In discussing his new opportunity with the Bears, Wright was as blunt in description as possible of his former employer.

"I was probably the best receiver on the Titans roster last year and I was playing 10 plays a game," said Wright near the conclusion of the Bears' minicamp in June.

To his credit, the 27-year-old Wright has much more of a case than his veteran teammate. While he had been limited by a knee injury in recent years, Wright actually once led the Titans in receiving in just 12 starts in 2013 - ironically enough all while under current Bears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains.

Then, if you take a look at Tennessee's receiving depth chart last season, it's not as if Rishard Matthews or Tajae Sharpe were these superstar options capable of completely super-ceding and overshadowing greater contributions from Wright. Yes, 2017 top-five pick Corey Davis is with the Titans now, but there's no reason a valued slot talent such as Wright should have previously only had 29 receptions and a measly 43 targets.

For health and both skill reasons, this might make Wright the favorite among this Bears' group to securely cement himself as a viable, complete slot weapon.

Finally, curiously, there's Markus Wheaton.

Wheaton is a fascinating experiment for the Bears because for whatever reason, he received the most guaranteed money by far of any new offensive addition at $6 million.

That's a bit strange when you consider that a received-loaded Pittsburgh Steelers team decided to cut all ties with the 26-year-old's services. It becomes even weirder when you note that Wheaton has never caught more than 53 passes in a single season or more than 749 yards. And considering context of other brighter talents such as Antonio Brown or oft-suspended Martavis Bryant playing next to him, it's easy to see why he could've created match-up issues against third, fourth, or even fifth cornerbacks in his most successful years.

So clearly, the Bears must somehow again know something most everyone doesn't in regards to Wheaton. Though to be fair, Wheaton's role in Pittsburgh at his peak shouldn't be too different than what is expected of him in Chicago. He won't be playing with the caliber of receiver like Brown, is all.

At this point, it's "what have you done for me lately" when evaluating Wheaton and that's a player who missed most of 2016 due to injury, appearing in three total games while catching four total passes for 51 yards.

Is Wheaton objectively a "good" and reliable receiver? Probably not. Is he potentially being overlooked due to injury issues and an overloaded depth chart with the Steelers? Uh, maybe.

As much as Cruz and Wright themselves look like huge question marks at the moment, Wheaton is as big of enigma on this Bears roster as they come. He's going to have to put on a show during camp in order to have any chance at Chicago's two frontrunners for the third receiver role. He'll make the final roster because of his contract, but his place with the team is not a bet I would take in this competition.

Either Cruz brings back his dance moves regularly, Wright showcases what the Titans were missing, or Wheaton plays on a hidden upside not many have seen. All three must find a delicate balance in Bourbonnais.

Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is an editor for Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.