By Chris Emma–
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — Ever criticized and constantly under the microscope during his time in Chicago, Jay Cutler is no stranger to scrutiny. Frankly, that comes with the territory of being the Bears’ quarterback.
Much has been said about Cutler’s career with the Bears, but not until 2015 did the word “efficient” come consistently to mind. Cutler managed the Bears’ offense through a myriad of injuries and inconsistencies to bring a respectable level of competence.
Cutler was supposed to put up big numbers, with the Bears flanking Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White out wide and placing Eddie Royal in the slot. The threesome of wideouts missed a combined 30 games due to injury, which included White losing his entire rookie season.
Now, improvement on offense could come from the receiving group. If so, Cutler could be viewed as more than just efficient.
“We can’t wait to really hit it off,” White said of the receivers.
After moving on from the tumultuous Brandon Marshall in spring 2015, the Bears committed to Jeffery as their franchise receiver, then signed Royal last offseason and finished by drafting White out of West Virginia.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace envisioned Jeffery becoming that elite receiver who can go up and get any pass; for White to be that dangerous combination of speed and size; and for Royal to efficiently work the slot, retaining that connection with Cutler.
Instead, the Bears went into Week 17 starting reserves in Josh Bellamy, Deonte Thompson and Cameron Meredith at receiver. While they each serve as valuable pieces to the depth chart, the Bears are counting on their top targets in 2016.
Jeffery opted to skip the Bears’ voluntary OTAs and stay behind in Miami with touted personal trainer David Alexander, who has worked with stars like LeBron James. In turn, Jeffery has worked on training his body to prevent soft-tissue injuries after four hampered his contract year of 2015.
With the franchise tag tendered — and July 15 serving as the deadline to negotiate a long-term deal — Jeffery must prove that he can stay consistently healthy.
“We’ve really been addressing that — getting his body aligned properly,” Alexander said. “But with Alshon, he’s just a guy that works really hard.
“Alshon will be the standard. When a lot of guys are in college watching film on NFL guys, they’re going to base their work ethic around him.”
All the Bears know about White thus far is that he carries himself with character. He fought through the lost rookie season with admirable work ethic and readied himself for this season.
Now, the key for White will be catching onto the speed of the NFL and attempting to turn his skill into game-changing plays.
“I have a lot of potential,” White said. “I got to go out there and show it. I’m going to work hard every day.”
Added Royal on White: “Just seeing how big and fast and strong he is, I think he can make a lot of big plays for us.”
When the Bears signed Royal to a three-year, $15-million deal during the offseason of 2015, they envisioned him as being a key piece to their plans. Then they drafted White more than a month later, and Royal became an ideal fit for the slot.
Sure, Jeffery and White are the top dogs at receiver, but don’t discount the importance of Royal, too. He’s a sure-handed veteran who could make an important impact for the Bears’ offense, plus his best season came with Cutler when they were in Broncos uniforms.
“I know the type of player that I am, and I know what I can do,” Royal said.
Given the hopes surrounding this Bears receiving trio — plus the potential impact of Marquess Wilson, Marc Mariani and more — it begs the question: Can Cutler put together his best season with the Bears?
The Bears granted Cutler’s wish by promoting Dowell Loggains to offensive coordinator after Adam Gase left to lead the Dolphins, in part because of what Loggains did working with Cutler as quarterbacks coach in 2015. It’s up to Loggains to maximize Cutler and the talent that surrounds him in this Bears offense.
Jeffery posted 174 catches for 2,554 yards and 17 touchdowns in the two seasons of full health before 2015. It’s fair to think he can catch another 80 passes and near double-digits in touchdowns if he’s on the field for 16 games in 2016.
Back in 2008, Royal broke onto the scene with 91 catches for 980 yards as a rookie target for Cutler in Denver. His most recent run of health came in 2014, with 62 catches and seven touchdowns with Philip Rivers and the Chargers. Expectations are high for Royal, and that’s only fair.
What White can bring to the Bears remains to be seen. That potential is certainly enticing.
The Bears are deep at receiver, with talent at the top in their dynamic starting three. Jeffery, White and Royal will join Jeremy Langford, Zach Miller and more to provide Cutler with a solid arsenal.
Perhaps this can be Cutler’s first season with the Bears to tally more than 4,000 yards. Cutler’s career-best 28 touchdown passes could be attainable, too.
Potential is there for the Bears’ receiving core to make Cutler more than just efficient.
“Potential,” Royal said, “is not enough.”