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Making The Most of Opportunity: The Bears Receivers 2015-2017

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Over the last three years, a single GM and a single head coach shaped the Bears’ offense. This is a dive into that time period to see which wide receivers had the most opportunities and which were the most productive when given a chance.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

As I look forward to the Nagy years and what will hopefully be a revitalized offense, I wanted to look back at the last three years and see what, exactly, did happen with the receiving corps. A number of claims are frequently made about which players were productive or which did the most with their opportunities, but I wanted to actually pull out a calculator and sort the fact from the fiction.

During the Fox-Pace era, 13 wide receivers recorded at least 20 snaps for the Bears and at least one target while playing on offense. This leaves out Bralon Addison (3 snaps) and Daniel Braverman (17 snaps), but otherwise includes all of the wide receivers Pro Football Reference has as recording an offensive snap for the Bears in those three years. Neither of them had a single target in those times, and the next fewest snaps is Tanner Gentry’s 182 snaps, so I feel perfectly comfortable excluding those two players.

I feel compelled to point out that when I began this project, I had no idea what I was going to find. I was surprised by some of the results, annoyed by others, and sort of confused at times. Anyone who wants to see the raw data can find it here [LINK].

Playing Time

Some players get injured, some are only on one-year contracts, and some simply fail to earn their way onto the field. However, it’s worth noting that the most ‘playing time’ in terms of offensive snaps played over these three years belongs to Alshon Jeffery (1194) and Josh Bellamy (1178). With an average number of 586 snaps played by each of these receivers, those two stand out.

It probably says something about the state of the Bears’ receiving corps over this time that the second-most playing time came out of Bellamy, who is usually spoken of as a special teamer forced into a receiver’s role. On the flip side, Tanner Gentry (182), Markus Wheaton (187), Tre McBride (234), and Kevin White (238) were all notably below average in their field presence.

Perhaps only interesting to me, a total of 3611 snaps were contributed by the four players found by Phil Emery (Alshon Jeffery, Josh Bellamy, Marquess Wilson, and Marc Mariani). Only 400 more snaps (4011) were contributed by the nine players brought in by Ryan Pace. On the one hand, this suggests that Pace did not--as is often claimed--simply flush away players brought in by the last regime. When a player was contributing, Pace seemed to hold on to him for at least a while. On the other hand, it’s another strike against the idea that the cupboard was bare if almost half of the receiver snaps were from players already on the roster at the start of 2015.

Opportunities

Across the 7622 combined snaps played by these thirteen men, there was a wide variety of offensive formations and situations. Sometimes, those receivers never had a chance to get the ball, and they were never going to get the chance to change the ball. However, the receivers were targeted 878 times and were handed the ball for 8 rushes. This means that the Bears receivers had a total of 886 opportunities to touch the ball (or, to put it another way, the typical Bears receiver received one opportunity for every 8 or 9 snaps played).

It’s necessary to point out that a receiver might end up with the opportunity to touch the ball in any number of ways. For example, there was the much-touted chemistry between Alshon Jeffery and Jay Cutler during this time period. If Jeffery received more opportunities, it could mean that he was outplaying defenders, but is also could mean that Cutler was forcing the ball his way. Likewise, if Marc Mariani was almost never targeted, that could be because he was being ignored or underutilized--or it could just be that he wasn’t getting open.

All told, the average (mean) for receiver opportunities per snap played was 10.7%, or almost exactly the rate enjoyed by Josh Bellamy. The standard deviation, for those who care, was 3.94%, and the three least-utilized players (on a per snap played basis) were all one full standard deviation below the mean: Tre McBride (6.4%), Marc Mariani (6.3%), and Tanner Gentry (3.3%).

By contrast, Kevin White (17.2%), Alshon Jeffery (15.7%), and Kendall Wright (a slightly lower 15.7% before rounding kicks in) were all given the most opportunities, all at a rate at least one standard deviation above average.

So, the picture this paints is that White, Jeffery, and Wright have, proportionally to their playing time, had the most opportunity to put up stats. Meanwhile, those other men might have seen the field sometimes, but they rarely saw the ball.

Strong Production

Some receivers fail to produce because they can’t catch the ball, and some fail to produce because they get tackled right away. On the other hand, some receivers excel by getting open deep and others manage great yards after the catch. One way or another, the Bears’ receivers over this time had managed an average of 7.41 yards per opportunity.

Tre McBride: One standout was Tre McBride, who had 9.6 yards per opportunity; that’s almost 2.2 yards per opportunity more than average, when the standard deviation was 1.87 Y/O. McBride is Exhibit A, though, for why it’s tough to really draw strong conclusions with football statistics, He had fewer than 300 snaps and he only had 15 total opportunities. One play here or there changes things for him, dramatically. Still, McBride had some of the fewest opportunities on a per-snap basis, but he made the most of them. It’s hard to ask more of a player Pace claimed off waivers.

Marquess Wilson: at 9.31 yards per opportunity, Wilson was also more than one standard deviation above average in production. What’s interesting about this is that Wilson had above average snaps (he played 718 total offensive snaps, while the average for this group was 586) and his 67 opportunities were more or less typical in raw numbers (68 was the average). So, while he only got the opportunity to make a play on 9% of his snaps, this is a pretty solid sample size. He was well worth the 7th-round pick Emery spent on him, and he produced.

Marc Mariani: Mariani’s results (9.1 Y/O) are just barely within the scope of one standard deviation, but he also did well with his very limited opportunities. On a pure “rate” basis, the second-least utilized receiver was also the third-most productive. Although he came to the Bears as a special teamer under Phil Emery, he was a reliable role-player during this time. It’s interesting to speculate if he would have regressed toward the mean or continued to excel if he had only been given more opportunities.

Weak Production

Tanner Gentry: Gentry is really Tre McBride in the other direction. His 5.83 yards per opportunity is not awesome, and it makes him the third-least efficient receiver the Bears fielded in the last three years, at least compared to the opportunities he was given. However, he also played the fewest snaps of any of these receivers (182), and with only 6 opportunities, total, it’s hard to draw even shaky conclusions for this undrafted find by Pace.

Kevin White: White poses a different problem. White has only played in 238 snaps, the fourth-fewest. However, as we saw above, he also had the most opportunities on a per-snap basis of any Bears receiver in the last three years. For all of that, he has turned in 4.93 yards per opportunity, which is more than a standard deviation below the mean. In other words, even when he has been on the field, he has failed to produce. This is despite the fact that no receiver in the last three years has been given more of a proportional chance to make an impact. This is more bad news for Pace’s inaugural first-round pick.

Markus Wheaton: Fans of Kevin White can console themselves, however, with the fact that a player produced less than White. In fact, Wheaton (3.0 Y/O) was more than two standard deviations below the mean. When he was on the field he had more or less the same chance to make a play as Marquess Wilson (9%), but this player did little to earn the $6,000,000 in cash that Spotrac reports Pace gave him in the form of salary, signing bonus, and roster bonus as a free agent.

Still, it’s not wrong to say that Wilson,McBride, and Mariani were the most productive on a per-opportunity basis, while Wheaton, White, and Gentry were the least productive, and we actually have big enough numbers to say that the variation probably not all noise.

What About Touchdowns?

With only 23 receiving touchdowns across three years, and almost half of those going to Jeffery (6) and Bellamy (4), it’s problematic to just use touchdown numbers. I tried using a yardage bonus, as with ANY/A, for touchdowns to see if it helped. All it really did was reinforce the existing numbers. No receiver was actually one full standard deviation above the mean even they shuffled their relative ranks a bit, and only McBride and White for more than a full standard deviation below the mean. With five receivers not scoring any touchdowns and five receivers scoring multiple touchdowns, it’s hard to do much with rate stats or raw stats.

To be fair, however, it is worth pointing out that Deonte Thompson scored a touchdown on more than 5% of his opportunities to touch the ball, and that the next closest rate belonged to Cameron Meredith at 3.5%. Bellamy, Jeffery, and Eddie Royal were all above 3%, while the average for the Bears was under 2%.

Closing Thoughts

The Bears’ receivers, as a group, relied heavily on Alshon Jeffery, Cameron Meredith, and Kendall Wright. Each of those players averaged more than 1 yard or production per snap played. They were the team workhorses, even if Wright was a little below-average in his production in terms of yards per opportunity (6.75 Y/O).

It is possible that Tanner Gentry just needs more opportunity, but it is equally possible that he will not get that opportunity with Chicago. It should be interesting to watch Wheaton and White moving into the future. These two players were disappointing for different reasons, but it’s hard to twist the numbers in a way that looks good for them.

Meanwhile, there are might-have-beens with players like Wilson and Mariani, who seemed to step up every time their numbers were called. With Wilson, at least, injury was an obvious culprit for his exit. These two both probably deserve more credit, and along with Meredith and Jeffery they are the leaders in terms of efficiency and production for the Bears.

It is also finally time, I hope, to give Josh Bellamy credit. Not only has he been a steady player in terms of the last three years (contributing the second-most snaps at wide receiver), he has also been average in terms of opportunities and production. He is a complete role-player.