On the receiving end: Bears add WR depth with Markus Wheaton as Alshon Jeffery exits with 'pay cut'

On the receiving end: Bears add WR depth with Markus Wheaton as Alshon Jeffery exits with 'pay cut'

Among the Bears’ early moves in Free Agency 2017 was the signing of former Pittsburgh Steeler wide receiver Marcus Wheaton, a speed wideout of considerable promise with 53 catches in 2014 and 44 in 2015 before going on injured reserve with a shoulder injury after three games. The Bears have been search of increased speed and Wheaton, timed at 4.45 in 40-yard dashes, brings that to what is expected to be an extensively reconfigured depth chart in 2017.

Alshon Jeffery probably didn’t plan on a pay cut this year, but that’s kind of what he got for himself. Color him an NFL-wide casualty of a John Fox axiom posted on a Halas Hall corridor: “Ability is important. Dependability is critical.” Jeffery missed seven-plus games in 2015 with injuries, four games to a PED suspension last year and now a big payday this offseason, his second without the long-term deal he sought.

The Philadelphia Eagles signed Jeffery on Thursday to a one-year contract worth $14 million, down from the $14.599 million Jeffery was paid under the Bears’ franchise tag. If he can put together a year harkening back to his 2013-14 levels, he’ll make it up next deal. But for now, the Bears look like they knew what the market was, and wasn’t, for a bit of a puzzling player.

[RELATED: Bears add Quintin Demps in rebuild of secondary]

At this point the starting wide receivers for the 2017 Chicago Bears look to be Cameron Meredith (14 games, 66 catches, 888 yards, 4 TD’s) and Kevin White, who’s been in this position now in each of the two previous offseasons before leg injuries did him in. White has been rehabbing his broken leg and showing enough to inspire at least optimism if not full-blown confidence.

“He’s coming along fast,” said GM Ryan Pace last week at the NFL Scouting Combine. “I still have a lot of confidence in him. He has a lot of confidence in himself. We’re getting daily reports on his progress. I just want to see steady, consistent progress from him. Right now he’s getting his body all in alignment, and he’s feeling good. When I see footage of kind of where he’s at now, I get excited. I just want to see steady improvement.”

“The last two years we haven’t seen a lot. I have a confidence in our doctors and his rehab and his work ethic to get to the point we need to get to.”

Bears backfield ranked fourth-best in NFL

Bears backfield ranked fourth-best in NFL

The Chicago Bears have a really good problem in their backfield. Both Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen will demand touches in 2018 and are each starting-quality running backs. Howard is the more traditional first and second-down back while Cohen offers top-tier playmaking ability.

The duo is so talented that they were recently ranked the fourth-best backfield in the NFL.

The Chicago Bears' Jordan Howard has emerged as one of the NFL's top rushers. He finished his rookie season with 1,313 yards, second-most in the NFL. Last season, he rushed for 1,122 yards and 4.1 yards per carry even though Chicago had the league's least threatening passing attack (175.7 yards per game).

Howard isn't the only standout back on the roster, though. Tarik Cohen is a supremely talented runner and receiver and a perfect complement to Howard. Last season, he amassed 370 rushing yards, 53 receptions and 353 receiving yards.

The Bears' backfield was behind only the Rams, Saints and Chiefs.

Howard set Chicago's rookie rushing record with 1,313 yards in 2016 and became the first Bears running back to start his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. He should be the Bears' primary back, but coach Matt Nagy expressed genuine excitement over Cohen's skill set which suggests he plans on getting him the ball quite a bit this season.

Regardless of how the touches play out, the Bears will present opposing defenses with one of the most challenging ground games in the NFL.

    Tarik Cohen was NFL's best big-play RB in 2017

    Tarik Cohen was NFL's best big-play RB in 2017

    Tarik Cohen's rookie season with the Chicago Bears was an impressive blend of running, receiving and special teams play. He quickly became a household name. The combination of his diminutive frame and oversized personality made him a fan favorite, especially when he started gaining yards in chunks.

    In fact, of all running backs with a minimum of 80 carries last season, Cohen had the highest percentage of runs that went for 15 or more yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Cohen will have a big role in new coach Matt Nagy's offense this season because of everything he offers a play-caller. He's a weapon as a receiver out of the backfield and can chew up yards on the ground like any traditional running back. He's a hold-your-breath talent who can turn a bad play into a touchdown in the blink of an eye.

    Cohen had 370 rushing yards, 353 receiving yards and three offensive touchdowns in what can be described as a limited role last year. John Fox and Dowell Loggains didn't seem to ever figure out how to best use Cohen's skill set. That should be no issue for Nagy and Mark Helfrich, the team's new offensive coordinator, who both bring a creative offensive approach to Chicago.

    Jordan Howard will be the starter and will do most of the heavy lifting. But Cohen is going to have a much bigger role than he had as a rookie, and that should result in more big plays and points on the board.