By Adam Hoge-
LAKE FOREST (CBS) — It was just one catch in one OTA practice, but Marquess Wilson flashed the potential the Bears hope to tap into this season.
Split out to the left of Jay Cutler, Wilson ran a 15-yard out route, creating separation from cornerback Kelvin Hayden, who was in man coverage. Cutler timed the pass well, but led Wilson a little too much, forcing the second-year wideout to lay out for the ball near the sideline. Wilson snagged it low with his hands and held on for the catch.
In June, that type of play doesn’t count for much, but it does provide some reassurance that Wilson is on track to secure the No. 3 wide receiver job in the Bears’ potent offense.
Like many seventh-round picks, Wilson has been a gamble. After getting drafted by the Bears about 13 months ago, Wilson only caught two passes as rookie, but the team double-downed in the offseason by releasing veteran slot receiver Earl Bennett and giving Wilson every opportunity to win the job.
It may seem like the Bears are putting too much faith in an unproven project, but Wilson was one of the better receiver prospects in his draft class before quitting the team at Washington State. He was too thin to play much as a rookie, and he was behind two Pro Bowl receivers and a veteran on the depth chart.
Still, Wilson showed enough last season to make the Bears believe he can be a regular in the offense this year. Brandon Marshall, who took Alshon Jeffery with him to Florida last summer to train, did the same with Wilson this year, and the three of them trained together. Already possessing good size at 6-foot-3, Wilson has put on added muscle without sacrificing his speed. He looks more like an NFL receiver this year and believes he can make a jump similar to what Jeffery made a year ago.
“(Jeffery) went down with Brandon after his rookie season and came back last year and just blew up. If it worked for him, it can work for me,” Wilson said. “So that really gave me confidence in going down there with B-Marsh and working with them.”
Wilson doesn’t need to become a Pro Bowler for the Bears this year, but he does need to contribute. The Bears’ gamble on him is even riskier now that they’ve lost Domenik Hixon to a torn ACL. Hixon was signed to compete with Wilson and provide some insurance.
But even if Hixon hadn’t gotten hurt, it was Wilson’s job to lose. And if it works out the way the Bears plan, they believe they’ll have the best group of wide receivers in the league.
“Honestly, I think so,” Wilson said when asked if they could be the best. “It could be if we all just work together and put in our time and be the little pieces we need to be.”
Marshall and Jeffery, of course, need to continue to be the big pieces for the Bears. Jeffery blossomed into one of the most productive receivers in the league last year, and he’ll have a bigger target on his back in his third year in the league.
But that’s the thing. Defenses learned pretty quickly last year that they couldn’t double-cover both Marshall and Jeffery. Add Wilson into the mix, and Cutler should always have someone working in space.
“We want to be the best,” Jeffery said. “Every year we want to be the greatest receiving corp in the league. Not just me and Brandon, we want the other guys to come along, too.”
That includes tight end Martellus Bennett and running back Matt Forte. Bennett proved last year that he could create mismatches across the board as he split the seam, a big reason why defenses had to choose between double-covering Marshall or Jeffery. Forte, meanwhile, is arguably the most dynamic running back in football — an extra wide receiver for defenses to worry about.
New Bears safety M.D. Jennings knows all about it, having come over from the Green Bay Packers.
“We got some great receivers on this team,” Jennings said. “I’m fortunate to go up against these guys every day in practice and not on Sunday.”
Jennings has seen plenty of good receivers in Green Bay too, but when asked if this Bears receiving group could be the best in football, Jennings said: “Oh, without a doubt. If those guys stay healthy and continue to work with each other and try to get better every day, those guys could have a great year.”
The health part is key. Marshall, Jeffery, Bennett and Forte all played 16 games last year, and losing any of them would be a huge blow to the offense. Of course, that’s something every team deals with and can’t be predicted.
Right now, the evidence all points to another highly productive offense year with Cutler throwing to this receiving group.
“The sky is the limit,” Jeffery said.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.