By Chris Emma–
(CBS) A certain level of awkwardness greeted Markus Wheaton’s arrival to Halas Hall, an unintended consequence to his entrance with the Bears.
Top receiver Alshon Jeffery had just spurned Chicago for Philadelphia and new quarterback signing Mike Glennon lost the target on whom the Bears had often relied for five seasons. On the same day, Wheaton arrived in Lake Forest to sign with his new team.
The 26-year-old Wheaton, now the elder statesman of the Bears’ receiving group, can’t be expected to accumulate Jeffery numbers, nor should he draw such a comparison, even if his plane to Chicago may have passed Jeffery’s to Philadelphia. But general manager Ryan Pace is hoping his team can find a combination of production at receiver with the newcomers Wheaton and Kendall Wright joining Cam Meredith and Kevin White.
Wheaton should be a major part of the Bears’ new-look passing attack. He expects to be busy.
“All over the field,” Wheaton said upon signing. “I played a lot of slot in Pittsburgh. I was also on the outside a lot. Being here, I wouldn’t want to put myself in a box and say that I’m a slot guy or outside guy. I want to do it all. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity here to move around a lot. I want to make plays, I want to finish down the field. Whether you count that as a 1, 2 or 3 (receiver), that’s up to you.”
A four-year veteran with the Steelers, Wheaton’s most productive seasons were in 2014 and 2015. He combined for 97 receptions for 1,383 yards and seven touchdowns in those two seasons, including a career-best five scores in 2015. He also played a role in the return game, which could continue in Chicago.
Wheaton was limited to just four receptions in three games last season while battling a torn labrum suffered in the preseason. He underwent surgery in December to repair the injury and hopes to be cleared for action come workouts in April.
While working as a complement to Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh, Wheaton posted 16 catches for more than 20 yards and seven for more than 40. He took advantage of favorable matchups in the Steelers’ high-octane passing attack.
Pace pointed to how Wheaton was ninth in 2015 with his 17 yards per reception average. That was no coincidence, he believes.
“He’s a guy who can really run and gives us that element in our offense that I think that we need — speed,” Pace said.
“I see myself as a deep threat that can make plays down the field,” he said.
The Bears are in a new place now at receiver without Jeffery. They weren’t willing to pay him like an elite receiver, so he took a gamble with a one-year, $14-million deal with the Eagles. Pace had to act quickly to add depth at a position suddenly of great need, with Meredith as the top returning target and White still an unknown. Chicago would love for Meredith to stay productive, for White to pan out and for Wright to find his old form.
With Wheaton now entering the fold, the Bears have a veteran whose versatility showed in Pittsburgh. He has the potential to get open deep down the field or find the first-down marker on a short-yardage situation.
He’s proud of the versatility that could help the Bears.
“You can label it how you want to label it, but I’m here to make plays,” Wheaton said. “I want to score touchdowns. I want to win games.”