Bears

Bears’ Markus Wheaton says wide receiver group is 'definitely underrated'

Bears’ Markus Wheaton says wide receiver group is 'definitely underrated'

No doubt, there are doubts about the makeup of this 2017 Bears wide receiver corps. But as the departed Alshon Jeffery created doubts, health-wise, the past two years about whether he could stay on the field to prove himself worthy of a big payday (which he didn’t even get from the Eagles), Ryan Pace brought in a handful of replacements who’ve flashed in this league before. But recent history’s shown each of them has something to prove as well.

From Rueben Randle to fellow former Giant Victor Cruz. From former first rounders Kendall Wright to Kevin White, taking a third swing at making it though an entire NFL season.

Then there’s Markus Wheaton, the only free agent signee at the position this season to receive a two-year deal ($11 million total, with $6 million guaranteed). Like the rest of the group, though, he’s at a career crossroads. Following seasons with 53 and 44 catches in Pittsburgh in 2014 and 2015 (with a 17-yard average in the latter), the quick-twitch former Steeler was limited to three games a year ago before eventually undergoing surgery for a torn labrum in January.

“Everyone’s new, so we don’t know what it’s gonna be,” he said of the group at the team’s recent minicamp in Lake Forest. “In Pittsburgh you kind of have a clue `cause they’ve done it for so long. Everybody’s new, everybody’s trying to find their niche, so we’ll see how it goes. Anything’s possible. We’ve got a lot of guys who are looking for opportunity. A lot of guys that are hungry and have something to prove. Anything’s possible. Anyone can come out on top. The ultimate goal is to win games and I’m sure the coaches will put us in position to do that.”

The former third-round pick out of Oregon State (where he’s the Beavers’ all-time career leader in receptions, one ahead of Brandin Cooks) played all three receiver positions in Pittsburgh at various times, and while he seems most natural in the slot, is working to make himself as versatile as possible here. But that comes with some risk as a quarterback room that’s also gone through its share of turnover tries to get on the same page with all the targets. But Wheaton is more than confident the results will come from within this group.

“I think we definitely are underrated," Wheaton said. "We’ve come in and worked to get to where we wanna be. We will get there, and it’ll show up on the field.”

The incumbents in the room include Joshua Bellamy, Deonte Thompson, Daniel Braverman, Cam Meredith, and, of course, White. Wheaton can see the potential in the ex-seventh overall draft pick.

“I couldn’t imagine all the stuff he’s been through, all the pressure that’s been put on him," Wheaton said. "But he’s a down-to-earth guy who works extremely hard, so I think he’s gonna get his. He’s a big-time playmaker, so I’m excited to see him play.

“They welcomed me with open arms. Everybody’s down to earth, been easy to talk to so when I have questions, I’ve been getting answers, so it’s been real easy for me.”

That surgically-repaired shoulder was cleared for full participation just in time for minicamp two weeks ago. And Wheaton won’t allow himself to become hesitant physically as he aims to conquer what hesitation he could have within the offense, working with quarterbacks not named Ben Roethlisberger.

“I really don’t think there’s time for that. When you’re ready to go, you just go,” Wheaton told us. “You come in, you work, you rehab. And for me personally I had to rehab a lot to get back to where I wanted to be. There’s a level I want to be at. I’ve been just working to get there, so there’s no time for that.”

That last statement comes even if some observers hesitate to call Wheaton and these wideouts “underrated.” They’ll start attempting to prove that when the Bears report to Bourbonnais exactly one month from Monday.

First and Final Thoughts: Does anyone really know what to expect this Sunday?

First and Final Thoughts: Does anyone really know what to expect this Sunday?

Not unlike Matt Nagy and Mitch Trubisky, it's Year 2 of First and Final Thoughts. Insider JJ Stankevitz and producer Cam Ellis talk about what's on their minds between games.

Final Thoughts on the Bye Week 

J.J. Stankevitz: The Bears had a lot of soul-searching to do in their off week, specifically among offensive players and coaches not named Allen Robinson. But more important than anything else will be improvements on the offensive line — better protection and run blocking will go a long way toward helping this offense operate more effectively in the Bears’ final 11 games. That means better play from left tackle Charles Leno and center James Daniels, as well as counting on Rashaad Coward/Ted Larsen/Alex Bars to be better at right guard than a less-than-100-percent Kyle Long was. 

Fix the O-line and a lot of problems will be solved. Don’t and it could diminish how much better Mitch Trubisky is — if he is at all — upon  coming back. 

Cam Ellis: I'll be curious to see where the Bears' bye week preparation show up first. Between the offensive line, an uninspiring run scheme, absent tight end production and no real answers at quarterback (but otherwise it's fine!), they've got to start somewhere.  Is it fixing the run game in hopes that it takes the burden off Trubisky's return? Or is it getting Trey Burton: The Adjuster involved earlier? Speaking of getting the ball earlier, Anthony Miller lightly lobbied for a higher workload, which may not be a bad idea either. This is why they pay Nagy the big bucks, but man, coaching in the NFL seems kind of hard. 

First Thoughts on Week 7 

Stankevitz: I’m going to expand on this more later in the week, but New Orleans’ defense looks like a tough challenge for Trubisky to face in his expected return Sunday. 2018 first-round edge rusher Marcus Davenport is third in the NFL in pass rushing efficiency, generating a pressure once every 13.7 snaps (behind only Nick Bosa and Khalil Mack). Cam Jordan is one of the better defensive linemen in the NFL and doesn’t always get his due for how good he is. 

So New Orleans has an excellent defensive front, one that will take sound technique and strong communication for the Bears’ O-line to block. And then there’s cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who’s shut down the likes of Amari Cooper, Mike Evans and DJ Chark over the last three weeks. His lock-down presence — he travels in zone coverage to take out a team’s best receiver — allows the Saints to not need to always play a safety over the top, leading to extra men in the box to stop the run. 

So Trubisky will have his hands full on Sunday. It’s not like the Saints have an elite defense, but it’s good, and looks like a bad matchup for the Bears’ offense. 

Ellis: To almost directly contradict J.J., I actually think there are yards to be had against a Saints defense that ranks 13th in pass defense DVOA, ninth in yards per play and has allowed five plays of 40+ yards (T6). Marshon Lattimore's had a great month, but his season-long coverage numbers are more good than great. An average pass defense will be more than enough if the Bears' offensive line plays as poorly as it did in London, but if for some reason the combination of Rashaad Coward, a bye week breakthrough, and Taylor Gabriel makes everything snap into place, I think the Bears could move the ball better than people expect.

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Four Bears who need to improve over final 11 games of 2019

Four Bears who need to improve over final 11 games of 2019

Chicago Bears fans entered the 2019 season with expectations that, admittedly, may have been a bit too high. After last year's 12-4 finish, NFC North title and what should've been at least one playoff victory, it's easy to understand why. The defense was returning all of its key pieces and the offense was set to emerge in Year 2 under Matt Nagy.

And while a 3-2 start certainly isn't the end of the world, the Bears haven't looked like a team that can realistically win a Super Bowl. Sure, the defense is championship caliber, but the offense is nowhere close. 

But that was all pre-bye week. Is it fair to demand better results now that the coaches and players have had some time to step back and evaluate what's worked (and what hasn't)? Absolutely.

In order to really feel good about this team's chances at a Super Bowl run in 2019, a handful of players need to step their game up.

Here are four of those guys:

QB Mitch Trubisky

Trubisky represents the Bears' 2019 season perfectly. He's the classic case of in-season play not living up to the preseason hype. But, much like this team in general, he can quickly flip the narrative into a positive one if he gets off to a hot start in Week 7 against the Saints and over the next five weeks in general.

Trubisky is expected to start Sunday after injuring his shoulder in Week 4 against the Vikings, an injury that forced him to miss Week 5's loss to the Raiders. His absence was felt in London; backup quarterback Chase Daniel wasn't atrocious, but he showed he isn't the kind of player who can elevate his teammates and finish a rally. Trubisky has proven he can be that guy — at least, in spurts — and now has to put this offense on his back, carry it to more production, points and victories.

Statistically, Trubisky could be worse. He's completing over 65% of his passes, and while his yardage and touchdown totals aren't the kind that fantasy football owners desire, he's kept the Bears above water. It's time for him to turn the corner and start proving to Nagy and this fanbase that Chicago can win games because of him and not just because of the defense.

WR Anthony Miller

Miller was supposed to be the Bears' breakout star on offense. He was supposed to challenge wide receiver Allen Robinson for targets. He was supposed to be a touchdown-scoring playmaker. Instead, he has just eight catches for 80 yards and no touchdowns through five games. He's on pace for just 256 receiving yards this season. This, from a player the Bears invested a second-round pick in in 2018. 

Miller flashed his playmaking ability in Week 5 when he hauled in four passes for 52 yards against the Raiders. But he hasn't eliminated bone-headed penalties and still appears, at times, like he lets his emotions get the best of him. Miller has to mature as a route-runner and he needs to maintain a team-first attitude between the lines in order to reach his full potential. If he falls behind wide receiver Javon Wims in the pecking order after the bye, concern for his role in this offense moving forward is very, very real.

The Bears need Miller to emerge as an explosive after-the-catch mid-level target for Trubisky. Otherwise, the offense won't come anywhere near reaching its potential.

LT Charles Leno, Jr.

Leno has been one of the most consistent and reliable Bears players over the last few seasons, but he's off to a rocky start in 2019. He has Chicago's fifth-lowest grade on offense (via Pro Football Focus) and has been penalized a team-high eight times. Aside from Kyle Long, Leno's been the worst offensive lineman in the run game, too.

There's no reason to worry that Leno has suddenly regressed to a fringe starter. Sometimes, players go through a slump. But the left tackle is one of the most important positions on offense, and the Bears need theirs to be better down the stretch.

OLB Leonard Floyd

Week 1 seems like a long, long time ago for Floyd. He registered two sacks in the opener and it felt like we were finally seeing the emergence of the former first-round pick's pass-rushing upside. Now entering Week 7, Floyd is still sitting on two sacks.

To be fair, Floyd has been his usual solid self. He's playing sound football against the run and in coverage, but edge defenders will always be judged by how often they get to the quarterback. With each passing week, Floyd continues to cement his reputation as just-a-guy in that department.

A breakout from Floyd would put the Bears defense in a tier of its own over the final 11 games. In fact, if he can be that double-digit-sack guy to complement Khalil Mack, Chicago's defense will be of the quality that can win a Super Bowl with or without above-average play from Trubisky.

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