Bears Need to Add a Deep Threat to Become an Elite Offense
In his opening press conference, new head coach Marc Trestman was adamant that he adjusts his system to the talent on the roster, so to say the Bears desperately need a deep threat may not be accurate. However, he also said he wants the Bears to be able to attack the entire field "sideline-to-sideline," and they'll need to upgrade their roster to make that a reality.
Throwing the ball down the field is very important. Seven of the last 10 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks have ranked in the top 10 in both yards per attempt and yards per completion, according to Pro Football Reference. Two of the three exceptions to that—Joe Flacco and Eli Manning in 2009—were cases in which the quarterback improved his play as the season went on.
Last season the Bears tried to throw deep, but weren't very effective. While so much focus has been placed on their offensive line, they were still able to get Jay Cutler to throw deep on 15.6 percent of his snaps—the fourth highest rate in the league according to Pro Football Focus. Yet, Cutler ranked 17th in yards per attempt and 12th in yards per completion.
The Bears missed Knox. In 2011, Knox ranked seventh amongst receivers who were targeted on at least 25 percent of their team's passes, catching 53.3 percent of his deep passes on PFF. The Bears didn't have a single receiver rank in the top 30 in catch rate of passes beyond 20 yards in 2012.
Brandon Marshall ranked highest on the team, finishing 32nd amongst receivers who had over a quarter of their team's targets, catching 33.3 percent of his passes thrown beyond 20 yards, according to PFF. It's worth noting that he hurt himself dropping four such passes, one behind Andre Johnson for the league lead.
The Bears tried to make rookie Alshon Jeffery into their deep threat as 39.6 percent of the passes thrown his way were beyond 20 yards, but he caught just 26.3 percent of those passes according to PFF.
Both of their leading receivers, Marshall and Earl Bennett, have shown the ability to stretch the field in the past. Marshall ranked 12th—tied with Green Bay's Greg Jennings—in catch rate of passes over 20 yards in 2011, and Bennett was ninth in 2009, but those are the only times either has ranked in the top 20.
There's no question they can be helped with a new offensive system. However, unless Devin Hester suddenly learns how to run routes, the Bears just don't have a receiver with elite deep speed.
It's hard to say what the Bears offense will look like next season. New offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer was the offensive line coach for New Orleans, and Trestman consulted their in 2007, so their offense could resemble the Saints'. If it does, they won't be nearly as reliant on the deep ball. Drew Brees threw deep on just 11.9 percent of his passes last year, according to PFF.
New Orleans' lack of downfield passes isn't just because of Brees' lack of arm strength. The Packers run a similar offense, and Aaron Rodgers threw deep on just 11.2 percent of his passes but was effective doing so, completing 53.2 percent of those passes.
Despite a relatively low percentage of their passes traveling far down the field, Rodgers and Brees tied with Joe Flacco and Peyton Manning for the league lead with 11 touchdown passes coming on throws that traveled farther than 20 yards down field.
There are a combination of factors that go into that.
Obviously, if a defense knows the offense is going to throw deep, it's more difficult to do so. The Packers and Saints have offenses that depend on short and intermediate routes to open up plays down the field.
If you look at Rodgers' highlights against the Houston Texans, you'll see three of his 11 touchdown passes, and in all three the receivers are open.
Both the Packers and the Saints had at least two receivers who ranked in the top 20 in terms of the percentage of passes they caught beyond 20 yards, according to PFF. Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson combined for 16 such catches, just four fewer than the entire Bears' group of receivers with 34 fewer targets. Part of it is their talent and part of it is the offense they play in, helping them confuse secondaries.
Adding a deep threat isn't just about the production of that player, it opens the field up for the rest of the receivers too.
According to PFF, Baltimore led the league in percentage of deep passes, and even with speedsters Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones on the roster, their most efficient deep threat was Anquan Boldin. Boldin was only targeted on 16 deep passes, but caught 10 of them for four touchdowns.
Boldin was never known as a great deep receiver earlier in his career—and certainly hasn't developed those skills past his 30th birthday—but because teams were so focused on preventing Smith and Jones from beating them deep, it gave Boldin more opportunities.
Should the Bears decide to add a deep threat to their receiving corps, they have a number of options. It all depends on how much they want to invest.
A popular name being thrown out is Greg Jennings, who would certainly upgrade their receiving corps overall, but hasn't been a particularly effective deep threat. According to PFF, Jennings has ranked in the top 20 in deep catch percentage just once since 2008. Part of the problem with Jennings may be price. It has been rumored (per ESPN's Tom Pelissero) that Jennings is commanding $14 million per season.
ESPN's KC Joyner suggested the Bears may be in the market for Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Wallace. It's certainly a possibility given Phil Emery's desire for playmakers, but they could've had Wallace last year if they wanted him.
NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal has Wallace as his best available free agent, which means his price tag is likely going to be high. With Marshall, Earl Bennett and 2012 second-round pick Alshon Jeffery under contract for at least the next two seasons, it seems unlikely that the Bears would invest much more in that position.
Steve Breaston is a name to keep an eye on. Emery was in the Kansas City Chiefs front office when they brought him in two years ago. He was a very good deep threat for Arizona, ranking fifth in catch rate of passes beyond 20 yards in 2010 and 18th in 2009, according to PFF.
Poor quarterback play has led to a significant drop in his production in Kansas City. He has already gotten interest from the Pittsburgh Steelers, which could end the Bears' chances of getting him before they start.
Another interesting player to keep an eye on is Randy Moss. Moss has already said he's going to play this year and has received rave reviews for his behind-the-scenes work in the 49ers locker room last season.
Moss isn't a great receiver any more, but he helped the 49ers and he could help the Bears next season.
Despite having Alex Smith—who threw beyond 20 yards just 19 times, according to PFF—as his quarterback for half the team's passing attempts, Moss averaged 15.5 yards per catch. He also had seven catches for over 20 yards and picked up first downs on 78.5 percent of his receptions.
At this stage in his career, he's not going to play every snap, but he still has the speed to get deep, and that is what the Bears need.
The most likely place the Bears could look for a deep threat is the draft and there are a number of interesting options there. Five receivers ran 40-yard dash times in under 4.4 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine. Although some are considered to be more like Cobb or Minnesota's Percy Harvin, their speed would be an asset to the Bears.
One name that stands out is Oregon State's Markus Wheaton. Bleacher Report's own Wes Stueve considers Wheaton to be the best deep threat to enter the NFL in years. He is the leading receiver in Oregon State History and had a good performance at the combine where he ran a 4.45 40-yard dash and was the top performer amongst receivers in the 20- and 60-yard shuttle runs and bench press.
How or where they acquire a deep threat isn't necessarily important. The Bears almost certainly won't break the bank for someone who only brings one dimension, but it is an important one. Adding a deep threat may not be the biggest priority for the Bears this offseason, but it would hard for them to be an elite offense if they don't threaten defenses down the field.
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