By Chris Emma—
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (670 The Score) – In the aftermath of a decisive Bears victory on Sunday, the confidence was flowing through the visiting locker room at Paul Brown Stadium.
“We call ourselves 7-Eleven,” Kendall Wright said of the Bears receivers. “We’re always open.”
Wright was feeling good after posting the best performance of any Bears receiver a 33-7 win over the Bengals, recording 10 catches on 11 targets and going for 107 yards. But those comments were worthy of eye rolls for anybody who has watched a Bears the entire season.
Getting open has been a great challenge for the Bears’ receiving group, one that has done few favors for rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. There have been two games this season in which just one receiver had a reception. Deonte Thompson has the fourth-most receptions among Bears wideouts this season, and he was released in early October.
But more recently, the Bears have found success in the passing game, with receivers are making greater contributions. Part of the success has also stemmed from rookie running back Tarik Cohen and rookie tight end Adam Shaheen being trusted with greater roles in the passing game. A lot of it is simply Trubisky establishing a better rapport.
“The more you can throw with a person and your teammates, the better you’re going to get,” Trubisky said. “You’re just going to build that chemistry and we’ve really just gotten on the same page, able to trust each other. The more routes you run, the better the timing is and all that stuff. So, I feel really confident in that group.”
The Bears could have had a different look at receiver this season, but they haven’t been fortunate there. Cameron Meredith suffered a torn ACL in August and Kevin White suffered a broken scapula in the season opener. Both were placed on season-ending injured reserve. The Bears will have to evaluate their future at the position this offseason, confronting the viability of White while looking to new No. 1 targets in free agency and the draft.
Wright has emerged as the top receiver for the Bears, posting a team-best 43 receptions for 477 yards. Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, who coached Wright in Tennessee, credits him for his savvy play and the ability to find windows in coverage. Trubisky deserves credit, too, for finding Wright in an opening.
For a team desperate to find stability at receiver, Wright has earned a place moving forward. He and Dontrelle Inman – acquired by trade in early November – are both playing with contracts set to expire at season’s end and deserve consideration this offseason. Then there’s Markus Wheaton, who was signed to a two-year deal worth up to $11 million last March. He has just one reception for four yards in eight games this season. White still has more receptions than Wheaton does to this point.
Wheaton underwent an emergency appendectomy in training camp, returned and broke his pinkie the first practice back, then suffered a groin injury in mid-October. Meanwhile, the Bears coaching staff hasn’t seen the right timing with Trubisky to trust Wheaton with a larger role in their offense.
“We’re obviously not on the same page,” Wheaton said in regard to the coaching staff. “I want to be on the field. I’m not on the field. Me personally, I think I should be. I’m sure they’re doing whatever they need to do to help this team win. As long as their motivates are in line with that, then I can’t really be mad.
“It’s not about me. It’s about the team. For me to voice or show my frustration wouldn’t help anybody. Being here, it’s about trying to help the team get wins. I’m just trying to do what I can to help that out.”
Wheaton admitted his frustration with this season. He joined the Bears after a run of success with the Steelers and is enduring the first losing season of his NFL career.
Despite the disappointment, Wheaton has maintained an upbeat demeanor. Meanwhile, the focus for him now turns from a lost season to wondering what’s next. His contract only guarantees $6 million and comes with a minimal cap hit for a release. The Bears will evaluate whether he can turn it around in 2018.
“That’s something I can do anywhere,” Wheaton said. “As long as I’m on the field, I feel like I can do that. I have total confidence in myself. Whether it’s here or somewhere else, I’m sure I can get on the field and do that.”
The Bears would love to have found the next Meredith – a young receiver with untapped potential. Wright and Inman could be quality targets moving forward, while Meredith should have a spot next season. But this season has brought the Bears few solutions to their problems at receiver.
Trubisky has done his part with a limited cast of talent at receiver. He has worked the extra routes after practice and tried to establish a connection. That can only go so far.
Management at Halas Hall must find impact receivers who can do more than just getting open.