2017 Bears position grades: Wide receivers

2017 Bears position grades: Wide receivers

2017 grade: D-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Markus Wheaton (contract), Dontrelle Inman (free agent), Kendall Wright (free agent), Josh Bellamy (free agent), Kevin White (fifth-year option)

Possible free agent targets: All of them? (But more specifically Jarvis Landry, Mike Wallace, Paul Richardson, Marqise Lee, Ryan Grant, Eric Decker, Albert Wilson, Donte Moncrief, Jaron Brown, Taylor Garbriel, Terrelle Pryor, John Brown, Allen Robinson)

The Bears cannot go into 2018 with a wide receiver core as weak as the one with which Mitchell Trubisky had to work in 2017. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to go out and sign Jarvis Landry for huge money and then draft, say, Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, but adding multiple reliable wide receivers is a massive need for the offseason. A blend of free agents and draft picks seems like the most likely route.

Before we look at this year’s free agent class, a word on Cameron Meredith, who said this on locker cleanout day Jan. 1: “Training camp for sure I’ll be back. Right now it’s staying on pace so that I can do that. Yes, full recovery.”

The Bears shouldn’t count on Meredith to improve off his 66-catch, 888-yard 2016 season by virtue of him coming back from a torn ACL suffered last August. But it’s also not like any production from Meredith will be a bonus; if he’s even close to the player he was two years ago, he’ll be a significant part of the Bears’ offense.

So if the Bears are counting on Meredith to play in 2018, do they absolutely need to go out and splurge for the best receiver on the market in Jarvis Landry? Not necessarily. Landry reportedly wants Davante Adams money (four years, $58 million, with $32 million guaranteed) and might get more than that if a bidding war develops on the open market.

Would Landry be worth it? He followed consecutive 1,100-yard seasons in 2015 and 2016 with a league-leading 112 receptions in 2017, and won’t turn 26 until next November, so yeah, he very well could be. The Bears should have enough cap space to chase Landry, too.

But for a few reasons, Ryan Pace has either never landed nor pursued the priciest free agents in his three cycles as general manager. He splashed $38.75 million for Pernell McPhee in 2015; that was the 10th-largest free agent contract signed that year and has the 13th-highest amount of guaranteed money, per Spotrac. Danny Trevathan got $28 million in 2016 (22nd among free agents), and Mike Glennon’s ill-fated $45 million contract ranked 11th last year (with significantly less guaranteed money).

The other part of Pace’s free agency strategy hasn’t been under his control: The Bears just haven’t been an enticing destination lately. Cornerback A.J. Bouye -- 2017’s highest-paid free agent -- turned down more money from the Bears to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars, for example.

The Bears hope that’s changing, with a promising franchise quarterback, a young and affable head coach and a major renovation to Halas Hall. For all the losing, and for all the gripes outside Lake Forest about John Fox, the Bears did have a good culture in their locker room. Selling the future of this franchise should be a lot easier in 2018 than it was in 2017.

Will that all add up to the Bears signing Landry to a huge contract? Not necessarily. The Bears could make a strong pitch and sizable offer, but he could be lured by another team that’s had more recent success (like the Oakland Raiders). Or Pace could continue to look for bargains in free agency, which hasn’t particularly worked out for him in the past, but then take a receiver with the Bears’ first-round pick.

But perhaps Pace will see his long-term vision coming together, and will see a big-ticket free agent like Landry being the guy who puts the Bears over the hump from winning to losing. He could be the franchise’s Jon Lester, or if you’re a hopeful White Sox fan, Manny Machado.

But here’s a counter to the argument for signing Landry: Kansas City’s offense last year didn’t have a big-time outside target. Tyreek Hill’s versatility and explosive playmaking ability made him the Chiefs’ best wide receiver, but he was able to line up at almost any position on the field. Albert Wilson (who’s a free agent) had the second-most targets of among Chiefs receivers with 62; tight end Travis Kelce was targeted a team-high 122 times.

The Bears don’t have a Hill or a Kelce on their roster. Tarik Cohen and Adam Shaheen could be the “light” versions of both, which may necessitate a need for better “traditional” wide receivers. That doesn’t necessarily mean Landry, to be fair.

Mike Wallace is 31 but showed he still has something in the tank, missing only one game the last two years while racking up 1,765 yards and eight touchdowns for the Baltimore Ravens. Paul Richardson had a breakout 2017 with the Seattle Seahawks, catching 44 passes for 703 yards with six touchdowns as an effective deep threat. Marqise Lee had 119 catches for 1,553 yards in the vertically-challenged Jaguars offense the last two years. Ryan Grant has never missed a game in his four-year career and is coming off a career best 45-catch, 573-yard season with Washington. The aforementioned Wilson caught 42 passes for 554 yards with the Chiefs last year, both career highs.

Perhaps no free agent receivers have as much to prove than Terrelle Pryor and Donte Moncrief. Pryor, like Alshon Jeffery, found the free agent market weak in 2017 and took a one-year prove-it deal, but instead turning it into an extension and Super Bowl ring, he bombed with only 20 catches for 240 yards with Washington. It’d be a risk, but if he can get the stink of 2017 off him and flash the talent that got him 77 receptions and over 1,000 yards with the Cleveland Browns in 2016, he’d be worth it.

Moncrief is another interesting name out there. He was targeted over 100 times in 2015 and caught 64 passes for 733 yards and six touchdowns as the big-bodied complement to T.Y. Hilton in Indianapolis, but struggled to stay healthy the last two years, only playing 21 games and totaling 56 receptions for 698 yards.

One other guy to highlight: Allen Robinson. The Jaguars probably won’t let him get away, but even if they do, would the Bears really want to sign him and then have three wide receivers coming off season-ending injuries (Meredith and Kevin White being the other two; Robinson tore his ACL in Week 1 last year). The Rams’ Sammy Watkins is also an impending free agent, but it’d be a huge surprise if Los Angeles let him hit the open market, so he’s not worth considering for the Bears right now.

We’ll see what direction Pace takes next month with free agency. But expect the Bears to return no more than one receiver from their Week 2 lineup -- Kendall Wright (59 receptions, 614 yards) is probably the only guy who could be back, if the two parties want to re-unite. Wright, as it stands for my grade, was the only guy keeping this unit from an “F,” as in a total failure.

Markus Wheaton, who became only one of nine players since 1992 to be targeted at least 15 times and catch fewer than 20 percent of those targets (he caught two passes), is likely to be cut. It’s unlikely Josh Bellamy or Dontrelle Inman will be re-signed (slight chance for Inman, but he disappeared in December). And the Bears probably will decline Kevin White’s fifth-year option, making 2018 a prove-it year for the former first-round pick.

After releasing him, Bears reportedly bringing back Marcus Cooper


After releasing him, Bears reportedly bringing back Marcus Cooper

Marcus Cooper's offseason has resembled a will they, won't they relationship.

The corner back signed a three-year deal with the Bears last offseason, but struggled last year and was released by the Bears after one year of that deal. However, Adam Caplan is reporting that Cooper could be back in a Bears uniform this season.

Cooper was officially released by the Bears on March 14 and visited the Arizona Cardinals earlier on Friday. Cooper started for the Cardinals in 2016.

Cooper began the year as a starter for the Bears, but finished with just four starts. He finished 2017 with 18 tackles and three passes deflected in 15 games.

His play with the Bears didn't exactly make him Mr. Popular with fans, as can be observed by looking at the savage replies to Caplan's report.

Cooper's original contract for the Bears with valued at $16 million over three years so the reported $2.5 million number is a significant pay cut and could mean he is being brought back for depth as opposed to last year when he was expected to start.

Plenty of possibilities loom ahead of Bears' draft pick

Plenty of possibilities loom ahead of Bears' draft pick

As the Bears begin to fill out their draft board in earnest, they’ll do so by evaluating the players they like and the players they think will be available when they pick eighth in April. And what players check both those boxes and go into their draft “clouds,” as Ryan Pace calls them, will depend largely on how many quarterbacks are taken ahead of the Bears’ pick. 

With about a month until the draft, it seems clear two teams will take a quarterback with a top-seven pick: the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets. The Browns own the Nos. 1 and 4 picks; the Jets traded up from No. 6 to No. 3, and teams rarely invest that kind of draft capital to not draft a quarterback. 

That leaves a few hinge points in how many quarterbacks are picked by the time the Bears are on the clock:

New York Giants (No. 2 overall)

The Giants still have an aging Eli Manning but could move to use the second pick to draft his long-term replacement. Or, alternatively, they could use this deep class of top-end quarterbacks as an avenue to trade down, add some picks and build out a young core that way. Either of these scenarios would be good news for the Bears, as we’ve seen Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb and Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson connected to the Giants at No. 2 as well, if they were to stay there. The Buffalo Bills could be motivated to trade up to No. 2 to make sure they get the guy they want with quarterbacks almost assuredly going off the board at Nos. 1 and 3. 

Cleveland Browns (No. 4 overall)

If the Browns get their quarterback with the first pick — Sam Darnold? — they could be sitting in an ideal spot at No. 4. If the Giants draft a quarterback, Cleveland could play hardball and tell teams they’re fine keeping the fourth pick and drafting Barkley with it. That could create a bidding war between the Buffalo Bills (No. 12) and Denver Broncos (No. 5) to trade up and draft the last of the four clear-cut top quarterbacks in this class. In this scenario, Cleveland adds a bunch of picks to an already-sizable stash and accelerates their growth through the draft. 

If the Giants were to trade out of the No. 2 pick, let’s say to the Bills, it may lessen Cleveland’s desire to trade down from No. 4 unless a team in need of a quarterback like the Arizona Cardinals (No. 15) or Miami Dolphins (No. 11) starts lurking around. But as we saw last year with the Bears trading up one spot to draft Mitch Trubisky, teams don’t want to leave things to chance if they have conviction on the quarterback they want. So that brings us to the…

Denver Broncos (No. 5 overall)

The Broncos signed Case Keenum to a two-year deal and still have 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch on their roster, though he hasn’t shown much in only five games as a pro. Does Denver absolutely, positively have to draft a quarterback? No. They’re probably in the same boat as the Giants in that regard. But what if they really like Josh Allen and/or Baker Mayfield, both of whom their coaching staff worked with at the Senior Bowl, and one of them is still on the board when the Browns’ pick comes up at No. 4? Or what if Josh Rosen has been their guy all along? 

In that case, John Elway may make an aggressive move to guarantee he gets the quarterback he wants, and not risk losing that guy if a team were to cut the line by trading with the Browns. 

The other scenario is less positive for the Bears: Maybe the Broncos only have one or two quarterbacks out of this group they want, and they either can’t find a trade partner to move out of No. 5 or don’t want to. If three quarterbacks are drafted in the first seven picks, the Bears may not have the opportunity to draft one of Nelson, Chubb or Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds, for example, is a super-talented prospect — but we seem to be moving toward a consensus that Nelson, Fitzpatrick, Chubb and Barkley are the four best non-quarterback prospects in this draft. And in all likelihood, the Bears will only be able to draft one of them four quarterbacks are taken before they pick. 

The wild card here is Nelson, given his position (guard) is rarely seen as worthy of being a top-10 pick. But those who saw him up close in college believe he’s a future perennial Pro Bowler, possibly beginning as soon as his rookie year. The Bears’ fit is obvious, with Harry Hiestand coming to coach the offensive line from Notre Dame and the team — as of right now — still having a fairly clear need for another interior offensive lineman. Perhaps Nelson falls to the Bears even if there are only three quarterbacks off the board before they pick, but having four go off the board would make things a little less stressful at Halas Hall in late April. 

Indianapolis Colts (No. 6 overall) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 7 overall)

The Colts already traded down once, and likely did so with the confidence that Chubb would still be on the board at No. 6 to help their limp pass rush. Fitzpatrick seems to be a good fit with Tampa Bay, though a player of his caliber would be a good fit anywhere. Either of these teams still could be persuaded to trade down, especially if the Giants and/or Broncos pass on a quarterback.

Chicago Bears (No. 8 overall)

If four quarterbacks are off the board by the time the Bears pick, that’s ideal for Pace. If three are, he still could get someone from his No. 8 pick “cloud” and be content staying there. If only two are — and this doesn’t appear to be a likely scenario — that means the Bills haven’t found a trade partner and may want to leapfrog the Dolphins at No. 11 to get their guy. More likely, if the Bears are able to trade down from No. 8, it would be because a team like Arizona wants to make sure the quarterback they want isn’t snagged by an opportunistic team ahead of them. 

But Pace's draft history has seen him trade up far more frequently than trade down. If someone who's in his draft cloud is available when the Bears go on the clock, chances are he'll pick that guy and not trade down. 

Plenty can and will change between now and when the draft begins on April 26. But for right now, the landscape ahead of the Bears suggests only positive things setting up for their first-round pick.