The accomplishments of the offense under then-coordinator Adam Gase and quarterback Jay Cutler become all the more impressive when placed in the context of available resources.
At no time, from the beginning of training camp on, did the offense have its projected top three receivers available, and barely did the offense have even two of the three simultaneously. Wideouts Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal, who played in a combined 63 of 64 total games the preceding two seasons, missed 14 combined entire games in 2015 and portions of several others because of myriad injuries.
And Kevin White, the No. 7 pick of the draft and slated to start opposite Jeffery, was lost to a stress fracture until late in the season when the decision was made, with the Bears sitting at 5-8 after demoralizing losses to San Francisco and Washington, to hold him out for the entire season.
Jeffery was a virtual non-participant in training camp and preseason because of a calf strain, foreshadowing a succession of lower-body injuries that made a long-term contract impractical at his price and use of the franchise tag a logical compromise. Jeffery’s anticipated playing this season for the guaranteed $14.6 million tag amount became official on Friday afternoon when the deadline for a deal passed.
Jeffery finished with 54 receptions, good enough to lead the Bears. But his 807 yards, a decline from his 1,421 of 2013 and 1,133 of 2014, was still more than any two other Bears combined. Royal was signed to be principally the No. 3, but with White unavailable, was pressed into starting all nine of the games he played and finished with 37 catches but only one for a touchdown.
The Bears got production from Marquess Wilson (28 catches), Marc Mariani (22), Josh Bellamy (19) and Cameron Meredith (11), all combining for 14 starts. But the group netted just three total touchdowns. Mariani emerged as a viable third-receiver option, with first downs recorded on 19 of his 22 catches and 11-for-11 on third-down targets.
The exit of Gase to Miami, replaced by promoting Dowell Loggains from QB coach to coordinator, will stand as one of the single biggest adjustments within the entire on-field operations. The Bears also allowed receivers coach Mike Groh to leave for a post as passing-game coordinator and receivers coach with the Los Angeles Rams. In his place the organization hired Tulane receivers coach Curtis Johnson, who worked as a member of the New Orleans Saints staff during the Super Bowl season of 2009 and while Bears GM Ryan Pace was in personnel there.
White began making a major impression in closed practices once he was cleared for work late in the season. His developing a relationship with Cutler has been an emphasis this offseason. The two watched the Super Bowl together and traveled to Tennessee for some work together. “That’s been going good,” White said. “He’s a great leader. A great guy. So we’re trying to get on the same page.”
To the Bears dissatisfaction, Jeffery opted out of working with the team in Chicago other than for mandatory sessions, instead working out in south Florida on his own program. “I was just working on some soft tissues issues,” Jeffery said. “I was working out with my trainer and some other people I was seeing down there.”
The Bears used a seventh-round draft pick on Daniel Braverman out of Western Michigan, where he caught 108 passes for 1,367 yards and 13 touchdowns. Undrafted free agent Kieren Duncan secured a spot at least on the roster going into training camp.
Wilson was lost for an undetermined amount of time, expected to include the first six weeks of the regular season, when he fractured his foot during a minicamp practice.
But the focus is less on the depth chart than what the top of the chart – Jeffery and White – generates in their first time working together.
“They’re still learning,” Cutler said. “Al has got a little catching up to do with some of the stuff that we’re putting in, and then Kevin, taking a year off, it’s hard for anybody to not play football for a year. He played at West Virginia where our offense is a little bit different. So he’s kind of got a year and a half of just straight catching up with what he has to do in a short amount of time.”
WR Alshon Jeffery
WR Kevin White
WR Eddie Royal
3 questions camp will begin to answer…
…What exactly does $14.6 million buy the Bears?
Jeffery’s mindset and dedication have been subjects of conjecture, particularly after he missed seven games last season in what was a contract year. The franchise tag makes him one of the highest-paid receivers for 2016, but he was not an integral part of the offseason program and is a health concern until he isn’t.
And there is the matter of a new offensive coordinator, new receivers coach and a new wideout on the opposite side. “I mean, there were a few tweaks here and there,” Jeffery said, “but pretty much most of the stuff is still the same.”
…How far behind will Kevin White be after missing his entire rookie season beyond a handful of practices?
White’s attitude and work ethic are exemplary, but he had a handful of drops in offseason sessions, and does not have the NFL-experience base that his teammates have as the offense undergoes a change of coordinator. His to-learn list is extensive:
“Learning different types of coverages,” White began. “What the corners and safeties jobs are to stop a certain kind of concept we may run. Learning different types of techniques as far as press release, versus off and zone. That sort of stuff.”
…Is there quality and durability after Jeffery and White?
Not that either of those two have established records of durability, but Royal turns 30 and is coming off missing games at three different points last season. Wilson already is down until further notice. The Bears need to get through camp healthy and with starter-grade quality evident in more than their top two receivers.