There is a buzz radiating from Chicago, and it’s not all centered on the early successes of Phil Emery’s rebuild of the Bears defense.
The Marc Trestman offense still remains the hottest ticket in the Windy City, with new mega-deal quarterback Jay Cutler ready to enter year two leading arguably the NFL‘s best collection of offensive armament.
His weaponry might be soon adding a new, intriguing member.
In a cost-slashing move, the Bears cut veteran-slot receiver Earl Bennett in mid-March after he denied a second pay cut in as many years. But with Bennett’s departure comes the obvious opening for Marquess Wilson, a 2013 seventh-round pick who is oozing with potential as the Bears’ new No. 3 receiver.
While Wilson caught just two passes for 13 yards as a rookie, Trestman believes he has what it takes to make a sophomore jump.
“I think he showed that we can work with him and develop him,” Trestman said, via Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. “He’s got the football intelligence that we’re looking for and the ability to be flexible within the offense…He’s going to have a chance to compete and be a part of what we do after Alshon (Jeffery) and Brandon (Marshall).”
The Bears under Trestman have shown an ability to develop receivers, with Jeffery—a former second-rounder who has blossomed into one of the NFL’s next big things at the position—serving as the shining example.
Yet expectations for Wilson should be tempered, as Bennett caught only 32 passes for 243 yards last season despite the Bears employing three-receiver sets on a majority of offensive snaps. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Bennett ran 364 routes in 2013 and played over 50 percent of the team’s snaps but saw just 42 targets. His 11.5 percent target rate was the second lowest among the 60 qualifying receivers last season.
While the third receiver is a big part of some offenses, it’s typically the fifth option in Chicago.
Running back Matt Forte received 363 total touches last season, including 74 catches on 94 targets. Top receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery dominated the passing game, with Bears quarterbacks targeting the pair a ridiculous 313 times. Tight end Martellus Bennett was third in targets with 96.
No other player besides Bennett saw 10 or more targets last season. Wilson himself only saw three passes come his way over 10 games.
Overall, wide receivers not named Jeffery or Marshall were targeted just 49 total times in 2013. The Bears attempted 579 total passes, leaving a chunk of just over eight percent for the secondary receivers.
It’s possible the top-heavy targeting was a result of Bennett’s decline. He averaged only 7.6 yards a reception and ranked near the bottom of the NFL in yards per route run. His longest catch of the season went for just 17 yards.
Even an offense as talented as the Bears needs to evolve from year to year, and it appears production from the third receiver spot is a prime candidate for Chicago’s growth in 2014.
Can Wilson provide it?
The 6’4″, 185-pounder was highly productive in college, catching 189 passes for 23 touchdowns in just 33 games—including 82 receptions for over 1,300 yards and 12 scores during a breakout season in 2011. He controversially left Washington State nine games into his junior season following a suspension from coach Mike Leach, which helped precipitate his drastic fall down draft boards.
Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller used Oakland Raiders receiver Denarius Moore as Wilson’s pro comparison during the 2013 NFL Draft:
While the Moore comparison is strong, Wilson also looks a lot like a more lanky version of Sidney Rice. Tall, with jumping ability and a wide catch radius, Wilson can win down the field with length and athleticism, much like a healthy Rice has in previous years.
He caught five passes for 96 yards—including a 58-yarder that almost went for a touchdown in opener—over three preseason games last August. It was enough for Chicago to keep him on the roster as the team’s sixth receiver.
If he can now pack on some pounds—in fact, he’s already training with Marshall and Jeffery in Florida this offseason—Wilson could help give the Bears passing game unique versatility.
Bennett was primarily a slot receiver, who excelled at working underneath and in the middle of the field. Wilson can also play inside, but his biggest contribution might come as an outside receiver. In this scenario, Marshall or Jeffery could bump inside and create a terrifying look for opposing defenses.
Per PFF (subscription required), Marshall and Jeffery combined to catch 55 passes and 10 touchdowns from the slot in 2013. Jeffery led all qualifying receivers in yards per slot route run at 2.89, while Marshall finished eighth at 2.13.
The two are so difficult to guard inside because slot cornerbacks tend to be smaller, and other times opposing defenses found themselves covering the pair with either a linebacker or safety. Those are situations the Bears will feel good about every time they see it.
Wilson made his one catch last season in a three-receiver set, with Marshall and Jeffery to the left of the formation and the rookie outside on the right:
The Packers were forced to counter the look with zone coverage. Wilson then runs an uncontested slant, with Cutler finding him open in the window. He takes a hit, but he still picks up 10 yards and a first down.
Also, look at Marshall and Jeffery to the bottom of the screen. The Packers have safety Morgan Burnett on Marshall, who is wide open after running a five-yard comeback route from the slot. That’s a great matchup for the Bears. Jeffery also flashes open against off-zone coverage.
The Bears may see a lot of this kind of look next season if Wilson can develop into a consistent threat as a perimeter receiver.
Chicago might also take another step forward in the red zone. Who in the NFL has the size in the secondary to cover four players with the size of Jeffery, Marshall, Wilson and Bennett inside the 20-yard line? The Bears won’t even need to scheme to get one-on-one opportunities for big receivers on smaller coverage players.
An offense loaded at the skill positions is coming off a season in which it scored the second most points in the NFL. The top-level production came despite Cutler missing several games and a limited contribution from the offense’s third receiver.
There’s no controlling Cutler’s health, but Wilson’s emergence as the front-runner for the No. 3 receiver role gives the Bears offense a real chance to grow further in the second year under Trestman.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.
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