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Bear Necessities: Wide Out? Why Not?

February 25, 2012

By Ross Mitchell

*Note: This article also appears on Fanified.com

January 26th, 1986. Yes, this is a date which lives in Chicago Bears infamy. If you are a subscriber to this blog you’ve obviously been “Fanified”. You are keenly aware the aforementioned date signifies the last time the Bears won the Super Bowl. A January Sunday over twenty-six years ago. I was still in diapers. Magic and Larry had not yet given way to Michael. A little country called the Soviet Union was still rolling along. Since this fabled and euphoric event, the Monsters of the Midway have mulched in mediocrity. They have enlisted the services of a revolving door of quarterbacks, hired a rash of offensive coordinators whose system and play calling are either dated, do not fit their player personnel, or are named Terry Shea, and neglected to add dynamic playmakers at the receiver position. At the time of his retirement Walter Payton had the most receptions in team history. At the time of this posting, Walter Payton is still the franchise leader in receptions. The flagship franchise of the National Football League, and the leading receiver is a running back. Twenty-six years and counting. Which leads me to the subject of this article: the wide receiver position.

For Bears fans or members of the coaching staff not familiar with this position, a “Wide Receiver” is a member of the offense who “catches passes” from the quarterback. They are the players Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees have predominantly targeted over the course of their career. Still not clear? They are the position Daryl Drake is supposed to be overseeing, the Johnny Knox‘s, Devin Hester‘s, and Earl Bennett’s of the world. Yes! Those guys! Calvin Johnson, that’s one. Brandon Marshall, Roddy White, Wes Welker. Very good! Roy Williams? Eh…not so much. They are players who torch Zach Bowman and every Bears safety since Mike Brown on Sunday. A few facts about wide receivers Bears fans may not be familiar with:

1. They are not capped to 5 receptions a game or 45 receptions in a season.

2. They should not have played cornerback in college.

3. They don’t have to drop nine balls for every one they catch.

4. They should not cut off the “slant” route after three steps.

Your head is spinning. Your world is upside down. Deep breaths, it will be alright. We’ll get through this together. I myself struggled to deal with the revelation that four of the eleven offensive players the Bears have at their disposal do not have to remain stationary until after the ball passes the line of scrimmage. Then again I learned this when I was eight years old.

Now I’m not saying the Bears have never had a difference maker at wideout. Curtis Conway, Jeff Graham, Marcus Robinson, and Marty Booker made a mild impact on the lakefront of Chicago. Muhsin Muhammad and Bernard Berrian played important roles on the Super Bowl team of 2006. Contrarily, I just named the six best wide receivers the Bears have had over the past twenty years. A group which combined for one Pro-Bowl appearance cumulatively (Booker in 2002, the first Bears receiver since Dick Gordon in 1972). Again, there names are Curtis Conway, Jeff Graham, Marcus Robinson, Marty Booker, Muhsin Muhammad, and the guy the Minnesota Vikings gave $490 million dollars.

But the past is the past. We can’t change it, we can only hope to learn from it. So what have we learned? Well as new General Manager Phil Emery has proclaimed, we need add an influx of dynamic playmaking ability. We are in the era where potent passing and big, athletic wide receivers king. No team can truly succeed without those two components. A case can even be made that all you need to win in the NFL nowadays is a passing game. Hello New York Giants and New England Patriots.

The Bears have their quarterback. That’s step one. Step two is giving him someone to throw to. There are a few options I feel the Bears can explore, if not pursue. At this point most websites will give you a list of available free agents and leave the rest to conjecture. But not us here at Fanified.com. No, we’re going to sit in the GM chair. We’re going to bring our ideas into the public (or subscriber) spotlight and open them for ridicule, approval, and likely threats of bodily harm.

(Before anyone posts that the Bears top priority must be offensive line, I don’t necessarily disagree, but that isn’t the point of this article. If I have to address why I think wide receiver is a bigger need than the line right now, here is my thinking:

The Bears will never beat a team like the Green Bay Packers or New Orleans Saints or any of the elite teams in the NFC without forcing them to double team at least one player when Jay Cutler drops back to pass. Just look at the last three Bears-Packers games. What consistently happened? Aaron Rodgers drove the Packers offense down the field on the first drive gave them an early 7-0 lead. Then Dom Capers honed in on the running game (Matt Forte, Marion Barber, and Kahlil Bell) taking it out of the equation.

From that point forward all he had to do was blitz seven guys at Cutler and the game was over. Why? Not because of the offensive line’s struggles, but because the Packers have two good cornerbacks in Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, Sam Shields at the nickel back position, and Nick Collins (if he returns from injury) and Morgan Burnett at safety. They can jam the Bears receivers at the line and blanket them one-on-one. That’s it, the game is over. Cutler has no one to throw to and no time to make a play. Rodgers has a short field all afternoon against a tired defense to lose. You can have the best offensive line in the world, without a single viable receiving threat, it doesn’t matter.)

Here we go:

Option One: Assuming the Bears have $15 million in cap space (that’s a conservative estimate) after resigning their own free agents, they have the ability to bring in one top end wide receiver and select another high in the 2012 NFL Draft. The outcry from the fan base and even Cutler himself has been for a “big” wide-receiver, someone over 6‘2“. Names such as Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Marques Colston, and Mike Wallace (restricted) come to mind. Stevie Johnson of Buffalo and Robert Meachem will also test the free agency waters, but personally I hold the others in greater esteem. Bowe is a likely candidate for the franchise tag, but the others appear to be set to sign with whomever the please. Mike Wallace will cost a suitor their first-round draft pic. However, as most experts have pointed out, a late first round draft pick is still a first round draft pick. Teams like the Bengals, and Ravens, and Patriots will make a hard push for his services and rightfully so.

I rank Wallace as the best receiver on the market. He’s 6’4” and the fastest player in the league. But I don’t see him in a Bears uniform. Emery’s mantra is to build the team through the draft. A former director of college scouting, he wants to build a winner from within. So giving up the nineteenth overall pick in his first draft at the helm of the Bears makes no sense.

Marques Colston brings a lot to the table. He is tall and runs solid route. He does have health concerns and has been notorious for starting slow. Not a good way to endear yourself to a fan base that just suffered through Roy “First Down!!!!!!!” Williams. I honestly do not see him resigning in New Orleans, not unless quarterback Drew Brees, guard Carl Nicks, and corner back Tracey Porter either do not get resigned or do not take a pay increase. What are the chances are of a professional athlete, who recently helped win a star-crossed franchise win it’s first championship, refusing a pay increase? What are the chances Mike Martz would ever call a cross-bodied, cross-field tight end screen with his backup quarterback making his first career start, on the opponents seven yard line with under a minute left in the first half on the road? Wait…

In this option the Bears make a play for Vincent Jackson. Jackson is well over 6’2” tall, can make a play on any jump ball (which he contests) and has big play ability as he averaged 18.4 yards per catch. He costs the Bears eleven million dollars against the cap, leaving them with four million.

With that four million they target a receiver in the first round. We will never see another rookie receiver contract along the lines of Larry Fitzgerald, not with the new CBA. The rookie pay scale will not allow it. So the cap hit for whomever this may be will not be anywhere near as crippling as was as many as two years ago. The Bears select nineteenth overall (it would have been twelfth had they lost to the Vikings in Week 17, just saying). Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon will be off the board by the third pick. But every other wideout has the potential to be available. If this is the case the Bears take Michael Floyd out of Notre Dame. He is another large receiver who reminds me of…Vincent Jackson! Why sign one Vincent Jackson when you can sign two? If Floyd is off the board I would draft South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery. He is more talented than Floyd but comes with a lot of off (and sometimes on) the field disciplinary concerns. I will give Jeffery the benefit of the doubt and say he will stay on the straight-and-narrow. Besides, the Bears have a good locker room with solid veteran leadership. And they stay out of trouble with the law…if you ignore Tank Johnson, Lance Briggs, and Sam Hurd…forget that last point.

Think the Bears offense can be dangerous with Jay Cutler throwing to Vincent Jackson, Floyd or Jeffrey, Earl Bennett in the slot, and Devin Hester as the fourth receiver? That’s a lot of size and a lot of speed.

(And again, for those of you screaming at your computer screen “we need to draft a lineman in the first round!”, this is one of the deepest offensive line drafts in recent memory. A player like Barrett Jones, who won the Outland Trophy, the nation’s best lineman, for Alabama last season is slated to go in the mid-to-late second round. I think the Bears need to add a new left tackle desperately, but more than anything they need to add talent.)

Option Two: The Bears sign a smaller top-tier receiver and add a taller, more affordable receiver through the draft or free agency.

I intentionally omitted Wes Welker, Reggie Wayne, and DeSean Jackson from the previous option because they are not what we would designate as “big” receivers. But they are still more than viable options for the Bears. DeSean Jackson comes with more red flags than a Target. I wouldn’t sign him because of his abrasiveness, his mercurialness, and his on-the-field antics. He is also the exact same receiver as Johnny Knox, only a lot better than Johnny Knox. The last thing the Bears need is another receiver who cuts off his route after the quarterback has already committed to throwing him the ball.

Reggie Wayne on the other hand is the consummate professional. He makes cuts on a dime, has reliable hands, game-breaking speed, and an infectious confidence. His work ethic is extraordinary to boot. The only setback with him is his age. He will be 33 at the beginning of next season. He also failed to reach the 1,000 yard mark for the first time since 2003. Of course Curtis Painter has a lot to do with this, but it is fair to question the diminishment of his skills. Finally, how much will he cost? If he asks for seven-to-eight million dollars per year for five years don’t the Bears almost have to pull the trigger? They were willing to give Earl Bennett over four million per year. And NFL contracts are not guaranteed. If he is too long in the tooth you can release him after one year. An expensive mistake but a short-term mistake. And if he still has gas left in the tank, you’ve signed three time All-Pro for a pittance (compared to the other elite flankers).

Lastly West Welker. Do I believe he will resign in New England? I do. But let’s consider the following; he led the NFL in receptions. He was second in receiving yards and targets. He caught nine touchdowns and was a first team All-Pro. Yet all anyone in New England will remember is the poorly thrown ball he dropped in the Super Bowl. He will be vilified in that city until the Patriots win another Super Bowl much the same way Bill Buckner was for the Red Sox after the 1986 World Series despite being a club stalwart. And the media coverage in 1986 is not even a fraction of what it is today. What is the best way to drive a player out of town? A sudden disappearance of loyalty. Just saying.

I would make a play for Wayne. He still commands extra attention from opposing defenses and caught 111 passes as recently as 2010. If you make a play for him and then draft a bigger receiver like Floyd or Jeffrey, or sign a bigger veteran like Robert Meachem, you still vastly upgrade the weapons at Cutler’s disposal. He would also be the perfect mentor for the younger receivers already on the Bears roster.

(I get the sense that Wayne wants to resign in Indianapolis, but the overwhelming feeling is that franchise is cleaning house. There is also the real possibility that Miami signs Peyton Manning and Wayne follows him to the city in which he played collegiate ball. But if both of those scenarios fall through, why not bring the man who torched you in Super Bowl XLI into the fold?)

Those are just two paths the Bears can take as they try to get back into Super Bowl contention just two years removed from hosting the NFC Championship. The overwhelming theme here is that they can no longer turn a blind eye to what has hindered them for the better part of two and a half decades. They cannot pretend Devin Hester is a number one receiving option. They cannot claim to get off the bus running. That isn’t how you win in the NFL, not anymore. As Phil Emery said during his introductory press conference, the Chicago Bears need to catch up to the rest of their division in terms of talent. Where better than to start than with the position where that quality is lacking the most?

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