I freely admit that this piece is based in speculation and needs to be treated as the football equivalent of a dream sequence, but I think it’s worthwhile to consider the possibility that the Bears do not actually need to invest heavily in the wide receiver position during this upcoming draft. Don’t worry if you need to jump down to the comments section right now and explain that I am out of my mind, ignorant about football, or generally incompetent. I’ll wait.
Get it out of your system. Add some exclamation points and use all caps if you must.
So, the premise of this piece is that in 2017 John Fox and Dowell Loggains did a poor job of utilizing their assets on offense compared with what an even slightly above average offensive coach would manage. That suggests that we don’t really know what the Bears have at wide receiver (or tight end), but we can tease out some hints on the basis of what the players on the Bears roster have already done.
First, there’s the closest thing the team has to a true #1 wide receiver, Cameron Meredith. Meredith’s 2016 campaign saw him manage 888 yards (with 63.4 yards per game and 13.5 yards per reception). His receiving yards per game placed him 26th among wide receivers that year, and it would have made him 16th in the NFL this year had he managed the same rate. His yards per reception were almost in tune with what Alshon Jeffery managed this year (13.8). His catch rate was actually such that he averaged more than 9 yards per target, making him an efficient weapon, if nothing else. We do not yet know what he will be like in 2018, but there is promise there.
Second, there’s Kevin White. I am not prone to singing the virtues of Kevin White’s development as a player, of his presence on the Bears, or of his comparative value. However, he’s going to cost the Bears more than $5 million against the cap for 2018 one way or another, and if anyone can figure out how to use him, it should be Furrey (once the Arena League’s leading receiver), Helfrich (of Oregon spread fame), and Nagy (an Andy Reid protege). During his four-game stretch in 2016, White was fed the ball 9 times per game, he managed a modest 46.8 yards per game. That’s not WR1 level, but it’s comfortably WR2 territory. Thus, while I cannot convince myself he is going to live up to his draft status for even a single year, he is almost certainly going to make the roster, and he has the potential to be at least contributing receiver.
Third, there are the other free agents. Dontrelle Inman, Kendall Wright, and Josh Bellamy all have the potential to be re-signed. More than that, the first two suggest that even Pace’s critics (myself included, honestly) should acknowledge that he finds replacement-level players well. He swung at Inman, Wright, and Wheaton. Two of those worked out pretty well, especially given the overall struggles of the offense. Whether or not these specific players are back is secondary to the overall point that Pace is able to find depth in free agency. Assume for the moment that all Pace manages to do is replace Inman and Wright with Inman and Wright or their equivalents (in this hypothetical Markus Wheaton is a sunk cost, but he could also step up and take one of these two spots, as well). That then means that the Bears would already have four potential starters at receiver.
Finally, when considering the talent on the team, there are also other weapons. The leading touchdown threat for the Chicago Bears’ receiving game in 2017 was Adam Shaheen (3 TDs). That’s good, because he’ll be back. It’s not good, because 70 players in the NFL had more receiving touchdowns than that during the regular season. However, if he simply holds steady, he’ll be a decent weapon. If he develops at all, he could be a true threat. Likewise, Tarik Cohen was good for 3 receptions a game on an average of 4 targets, and he created mismatches constantly.
The general conclusion to be had here is that even while hindered by Mike Glennon for the start of the season and poor play-calling for the entire season, there were players on the Bears last year who were capable of making plays when given the opportunity. That leads to the second part of this argument, and it is the part that requires more speculation.
What if Matt Nagy is really good at his job? What if, as many have suggested, he is able to develop an offense that actually gets receivers open and takes advantage of mismatches? It’s popular to assume that the strengths and weaknesses of NFL players belong to those players, and there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that this is more or less true. However, it’s not entirely true. Some coaches are able to get more (and, conversely, less) out of their players. What if Nagy is one of them?
If Nagy can improve on the performance of the offensive talent on a football team (and, given his credentials, he should be able to do exactly that), then the pieces already on the Chicago Bears might be enough for a well-coached Mitchell Trubisky to work with. This is especially true if Ryan Pace gets daring in one extra way.
Pace can finally go after a high-priced free agent.
It’s technically not possible to buy a draft pick in the NFL. However, the Bears have cap space and even with the argument laid out above, they offer a promising wide receiver a chance to be a clear #1 wide receiver in a fresh offense with a developing talent at quarterback. Hypothetically, this makes Chicago an attractive destination for the right type of free agent.
If Pace simply buys one of the best free agents available, and if the other pieces of the Bears staff and roster simply do their jobs, then he can free up his top-level draft picks for other positions of need.
This doesn’t mean he shouldn’t take a swing at a receiver in later rounds if someone with the right talent happened to fall. However, it does mean that the Bears have more options than it might seem.