Hindsight is always 20-20 but who could've predicted that losing Cameron Meredith to a torn ACL in the preseason would prove to be so detrimental to the 2017 Bears' passing attack. Maybe it was that Meredith was the No. 2 slash borderline No. 1 receiver adhesive glue holding the whole operation together. Or, there's always the John Fox and Dowell Loggains excuse. The one that takes into consideration how imagination-lacking the pair was regarding a solid offensive philosophy. Actually, it's all true together, because not even revisionist history could paint last year's Bears passing attack in a positive light.
For as much as it was rooted in poor coaching, abhorrent quarterbacking (hello, Mike Glennon), and early injury (don't say Kevin White), the fact of the matter is the Bears' receivers from Week 1 on weren't good enough to even compete at an average professional level. As a group collectively, they were the exact bunch you'd want to employ as a team if you wanted to attempt to turn back time on the forward pass in the 21st century.
In terms of Bears' history, who let's be honest, this organization hasn't had the best fortune with the forward pass and related statistics: it was easily the worst Chicago receiving corps in recent memory. Disregard the short stints with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in the early 2010s. Somewhere the long since retired Muhsin Muhammad, the same guy who famously anecdotally said "Chicago is where receivers go to die", had to be cackling maniacally at the state of sad affairs outside the offensive numbers at Soldier Field.
Just for posterity's sake, and regardless of the fun memories, let's run through how desperate the Bears' receiving situation became by the end of the 2017 season.
There was free agent Kendall Wright. Originally signed to be the Bears' slot receiver and No. 3 option, Wright was shoehorned into becoming the primary target thanks to the loss of Meredith and White early on. With 59 receptions and 614 yards, he didn't have an awful 2017 season maintaining the circumstances. Leading these Bears in relevant receiving statistics isn't much of an accomplishment, but it technically means something. In fact he might have exceeded expectations. It was more about lamenting what could've been if he was in the proper role.
Though it was a bit of head scratcher when Wright discussed the Bears' receivers needing more targets, not new weapons, as they apparently called themselves "7-Eleven because they're always open". Rationally that didn't add any demerits to his fine debut in Chicago. Realistically, it should've.
There's Markus Wheaton, the "bombshell" receiving addition for the Bears last free agency. After being given $6 million guaranteed for little production with the Steelers, some assumed he'd be a low risk, high upside big play threat in Chicago. Oh how wrong that misguided assertion was.
Some unfortunate injury misgivings during training camp and three receptions for 51 yards over 11 games later, and the truth was evident. Everyone associated with the Bears saw why the now notoriously receiver-loaded Steelers let the underwhelming Wheaton go.
Since the Bears' situation was evidently desperate, even after they inserted Mitchell Trubisky as starting quarterback after Glennon's benching, they decided to go acquire outside help. Help in the form of a traded conditional seventh-round pick for Dontrelle Inman. Plagued by drops, inconsistent route running, and defensive attention he wasn't used to as more of a depth receiver in the past, Inman struggled after being acquired midseason by the Bears.
So much so that after nine receptions in his first two games against the Packers and Lions, Inman would catch a total of 14 passes in the remaining six games. For you non-math majors: that's a little over two receptions a game. A flat boost.
Finally, if this were the first time around without any other context going in, you'd look at Joshua Bellamy's 376 receiving yards as a bright spot of an ascending youthful talent. Instead, for the third straight year, the Bears resorted to playing one of their top special teamers as much as they could offensively as they received the results exactly expected. An inconsistent non-threat who makes the occasional deep catch. Extremely occasionally at that.
Long story short: if the Bears are going to develop a quarterback properly for the first time in decades, it's going to start by giving him more competent weapons. It's going to begin by potentially jettisoning each of these disappointing players. They don't need to find a Julio Jones superstar type. All they have to do is surround him with legitimate competence. Sometimes that's easier said than done.
Once Tarik Cohen, a running back, isn't leading the Bears in receptions well into the season - as he did through much of early 2017 - then you'll know they're on the right track.
Let's window shop several receiver options that the Bears can consider on this year's open market.
Paul Richardson, Seahawks
The theme of this year's receiver market with guys such as the Jaguars' Allen Robinson likely getting the franchise tag? Do your research, and buy low in whoever you believe has the most upside.
A four-year pro and former second-round pick who has never caught more than 80 yards in a game or more than 44 passes in a season: Richardson fits that description.
However, before you go thinking he's another Wheaton, one major injury reasoning can help explain why the 25-year-old Richardson has had such a slow build to his career thus far. After showing promise in his rookie 2014 season, Richardson tore his ACL in a Divisional playoff game against the Carolina Panthers. This late year injury robbed him almost entirely of the 2015 season. By the time he returned in 2016, Seattle had already begun to rework the confines of its passing offense without him while he restarted at square one.
Since then, Richardson's proven to be one of the NFL's most reliable deep threats and spectacular catch artists. His 16 yards a reception back into an expanded role last year (80 targets) ranked 9th in the NFL. And for everything he lacks in ideal size at 6-foot, 183 pounds, Richardson makes up for it with a tremendous compete level. If the ball's in the air thrown in his direction and he's in contested coverage, it's his or no one's. He protects his quarterback and has made a penchant out of the ridiculous.
In terms of a stretch-the-field guy and receiver who works well in space, there might not be a better fit from this year's free agent wideout crop than Richardson. Signing him would be a bet that he takes off with Trubisky and Matt Nagy. Signing Richardson, much like the other targets in this diluted market, would mean somewhere around four years for $24 million, with $12 million guaranteed. A worthy investment to pay off for the future.
Albert Wilson, Chiefs
Wilson is the same player as Richardson but with a clean bill of health and familiarity with Nagy's offense. The 5-foot-9, 201 pound fifth-year veteran understands what Nagy looks for in his receivers after having played for him in Kansas City for the past couple of seasons. More than anyone, that gives him up a leg on potential contract negotiations and communications to keep a spark going.
What that spark is, is 40 targets in Wilson's last six games of the 2017 regular season. Or right around where Nagy took over play-calling duties. When Wilson was the obvious focal point was while working with another young quarterback in Patrick Mahomes in the Chiefs' season finale against the Broncos. It was there that Wilson continually created separation against one of the NFL's elite secondaries as he piled up 10 receptions (on 11 targets) for 147 yards.
If there was ever a better example of what Wilson could potentially do with Trubisky in a fresh setting, you won't find it.
Another 25-year-old seeking a larger role, it's no guarantee that Kansas City lets Wilson walk way for nothing. They do have the leg up on the former undrafted free agent for organizational comfort's sake and could sell him on playing with Mahomes. But that's not the same as playing for the coach that started to unlock your career in Nagy. It also isn't the opportunity to be the soft cushion safety blanket for another exciting young quarterback in a much bigger market with Trubisky.
Simply put, with the promise of a huge payday in the realm of Richardson's $24 million, it's going to be difficult to convince the 25-year-old Wilson he isn't on the brink of something special in Chicago. Money talks and so does promise of greener pastures with someone you already trust. Of all these Bears' targets, Wilson seems the most likely to actually end up at Halas Hall.
Marqise Lee, Jaguars
The Jaguars, heavily strung up by the salary cap thanks to paying into a dominant defensive front, are going to have to make a lot of interesting decisions this off-season. One of those decisions involves their on paper, top two receivers in Robinson and Lee.
Robinson, who hasn't played since 2016 because of a torn ACL, can be reasonably considered as one of the true No. 1 receivers the NFL has to offer. A complete and sizable target with speed, many teams would covet his services readily. Especially the Bears. Even while he tore his ACL to start 2017, it doesn't appear to be too much of a concern. That's a testament to modern medicine and the athlete Robinson is individually.
Which is why it's likely Robinson doesn't hit this year's open market as the Jaguars, as mentioned, are expected to use the franchise tag on him. When you have a player of his caliber, you don't let him slip out of your grasp. Jacksonville literally just signed Blake Bortles to a Glennon-esque short term contract extension. That means they're going to need Robinson to bail out their mediocre quarterback more often than not and deep down they know it in their bones.
Since Robinson isn't likened to pack his bags out of Northern Florida any time soon, that could spell the end of Lee's tenure in Jacksonville instead.
Once an unreliable receiver that struggled to get open much in the vein of many young NFL receivers - with a low point 15 reception 2015 season - Lee has picked it up. By catching 119 passes in the last two years, he's proven to be more of the reliable No. 2 slash No. 3 receiver Jacksonville originally foresaw in the former second-round pick.
Lee's not a game breaker, to be fair. Nor is he someone an offense runs a game plan through. At least not a championship offense. But he is a proficient target used in the order the Jaguars make him out to be. The way he'd be used in Chicago. The only caveat is that he led the league in drops lasts season with eight. A lack of focus is sometimes still present but not overbearing in regards to Lee's mindset.
As a compliment to a healthy Meredith, Lee's an ideal on the outside in comparison to the smaller slot types of Richardson and Wilson. In a normally robust market, he'd see much less capital given to him. Here, where teams such as the Beas will consider all fits according to their offense, expect a deal in the realm of four years for $32 million, and $16 million guaranteed.
Given the nature of the salary cap continually rising, that's not penny change to Chicago but is palatable enough to add his positives to an innovative offense. Plus, if Trubisky is indeed what Nagy and Ryan Pace believe, then he's a huge step up in quarterback play. A quarterback that'd have Lee enjoy a consistently much better statistical line than he ever had with Bortles. Never discount the quarterback to receiver relationship.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron, and is a contributor to The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.