By Chris Emma–
(670 The Score) The tone in Bears general manager Ryan Pace’s voice that September morning was grim as ever, much different from what we’ve come to know. Typically upbeat as can be, Pace was devastated in confirming receiver Kevin White had suffered another season-ending injury.
White was the first draft pick for Pace as general manager, a player in whom he saw great potential. The injury he suffered in the season opener, a fractured scapula, would cause his third trip to injured reserve in as many seasons. White has played just five games in his career.
Pace was dejected first for the 25-year-old White, whose character has been touted by all around him, but also for a Bears receiving group that was decimated. Sure enough, the corps struggled in 2017 and proved to be the league’s worst groups.
The Bears’ issue has been failing to replace what they have let loose. Pace traded Brandon Marshall back in March 2015, not even two months into the job. It was a move that made sense for multiple reasons.
When Alshon Jeffery departed in free agency last March, the team was counting on more from Cameron Meredith and production from Markus Wheaton. Meredith suffered a torn ACL in August, and Wheaton caught three passes all season.
A crucial offseason for the Bears must bring solutions at receiver as the team develops 23-year-old quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. The sad reality is that White, who was supposed to be the Bears’ answer at receiver, can’t be counted on anymore. Wheaton may not be on the roster in the coming weeks. Kendall Wright led all Chicago receivers with just 59 receptions. Rookie running back Tarik Cohen was second with 52, an indictment of the receiving group.
Pace didn’t mince words about his wideouts.
“We didn’t get the production we needed from that position, and there’s multiple factors involved with that, injuries being one,” Pace said during his year-end press conference in January. “We need younger guys to step up and we just need better from that position.
“We’re going to need to attack a lot of positions this offseason, but it would be accurate to say that that’s one of them. I’m excited because we have the resources to do so in free agency or the draft.”
What will Pace do? There could be some answers internally, but their next key step could loom in free agency in March.
Likely returning: Cameron Meredith, 25 (RFA); Kevin White, 25
There are few certainties for the Bears at receiver, though the tandem slated as top targets in 2017 should be back in 2018. Meredith is a restricted free agent and should see a steady role for the Bears offense.
In 2016, Meredith had a breakout season, catching 66 passes for 888 yards and four touchdowns. An undrafted free agent, he emerged as a pleasant surprise. Meredith is on target for a return during the Bears’ OTAs this spring and should be 100 percent for training camp, a source said.
As for White, it would be hard to imagine Pace entirely giving up on his 2015 first-round pick and cutting him. White is entering his fourth season, and the team holds an option on his fifth year. Pace and the Bears can see if he’s capable of playing any kind of role this season, but he won’t — and shouldn’t — be considered a starter unless it’s somehow earned.
Decisions looming: Markus Wheaton, 27; Kendall Wright, 28 (UFA); Dontrelle Inman, 29 (UFA); Josh Bellamy, 28 (RFA)
What the Bears do with the rest of their receiving group remains a question as free agency looms in a month. What’s likely is that Wheaton will be released after a season of injuries and poor play. He dealt with an emergency appendectomy, a broken pinkie finger, a groin tear and the lack of offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains’ trust, which led to just three receptions on the year — one more than White.
Wright was a bright spot amid a weak group at wide receiver, hauling in 59 catches for 614 yards and earning the trust of Trubisky. He’s worthy of retaining, as is Inman, who caught 23 balls after being acquired by trade in October.
Bellamy was utilized when the Bears were left with few solutions and played admirably after dropping far too many passes in 2016. Still, he’s a special teams contributor at best and not somebody who should be counted on for a role.
The Bears hold the eighth pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. It’s a pick that’s likely best to use on a dominant edge rusher or a shutdown cornerback and probably not a top-tier target. Alabama’s Calvin Ridley is considered the best receiver in the draft, though drafting him eighth overall could be a reach. There are some intriguing options on the second and third days who may better suit the Bears.
Pace is better off looking toward free agency, where there should be great intrigue to signing slot receiver Jarvis Landry or big target Allen Robinson, considered to be the best receivers available on the open market. Signing a standout at receiver and adding depth in March allows Pace to address needs and fortify his roster elsewhere in the draft.
When this offseason is complete and the Bears begin work, Pace needs to have given Trubisky and new head coach Matt Nagy some talent at receiver.