But like most pursuits of the league's ever-changing fads, the Bears' new prototype—a receiving core jam-packed with tall, talented and physical pass-catchers—will be a difficult one to match.
Unleashed in full last season, the Bears became the second-highest scoring team in football (27.8 points per game) using Brandon Marshall (6'4"), Alshon Jeffery (6'3") and Martellus Bennett (6'6") to dominate the skies. The trio combined to catch 254 passes for 3,475 yards and 24 touchdowns.
For context, consider that the Bears passed for 4,450 yards and 32 touchdowns total in 2013.
|Accounted for 68 percent of receptions|
Defenses simply couldn't find an answer to Chicago's three receiving behemoths. And there's early evidence to suggest that some teams are attempting to replicate the Bears' aerial dominance.
"It definitely looks that way, even if only on a small scale to start out," said Matt Miller, Bleacher Report's lead NFL draft writer. "As more super-sized wide receivers come available, it's a trend we'll see grow."
It wouldn't be the first time—nor will it be the last time—an NFL team attempts to play copycat.
Seemingly every season, we see one of the 32 NFL teams try something new and succeed, meaning the other 31 teams will try to either copy the idea or find a way to prevent it from catching on. Naturally, team builders take bits and pieces from the league's most successful teams and attempt to integrate those ideas into future personnel moves. It's how the game evolves over time.
For instance, the Seattle Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII in convincing fashion by using an unusually tall and physical secondary to smother one of the most productive passing offenses in recent NFL history. Predictably, a handful of teams have approached this offseason looking to get bigger and tougher in the back end.
Interestingly enough, the Seahawks also adopted a successful trait of the New York Giants. Like the Giants, Seattle stockpiled talent along the defensive line and made it a priority to harass opposing quarterbacks.
It's the way of the world in the NFL: Do something overly successful, and a team or two is bound to try and make it their own.
But copying trends is a difficult enterprise.
Players like Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor—the heart and soul of Seattle's secondary—don't grow on trees. Sherman is tall, lanky and the best cover corner in football, Thomas might be the best safety in the game and Chancellor brings intimidating size and hitting ability. Overall, it will be a very hard model to replicate. Most attempting to do so will fail.
The same can be said for the Bears' high-flying receiving corps.
Marshall is on pace to be one of the most statistically dominant receivers in NFL history, Jeffery might be the most physically talented No. 2 receiver in the NFL and Bennett runs a sub 4.7-second 40-yard dash at almost 6'7" and 265 pounds.
Good luck copying that trio. Still, some teams are trying.
The Arizona Cardinals have Larry Fitzgerald (6'3") and Michael Floyd (6'2"), plus 2014 second-round pick Troy Niklas (6'6") and Rob Housler (6'5"). It's not a perfect comparison, but the pieces now appear in place for the Cardinals to attempt a Bears-like assault through the air.
The Indianapolis Colts now feature Reggie Wayne (6'0") and Hakeem Nicks (6'1") at receiver, and Coby Fleener (6'6") and Dwayne Allen (6'3") at tight end. Andrew Luck should be able to push the football down the field to a bigger group of pass-catchers.
The Detroit Lions drafted Eric Ebron (6'4") at No. 10 overall to complement Calvin Johnson (6'5") and Joseph Fauria (6'7").
Even the Carolina Panthers appear ready to start chasing the trend, given 6'5", 240-pound Kelvin Benjamin was the team's choice to lead a new-look receiving core. He'll join 6'5" tight end Greg Olsen.
The closest example is likely the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who added first-round pick Mike Evans (6'5") and second-rounder Austin Seferian-Jenkins (6'5") to a receiving group that already featured Vincent Jackson (6'5"). It's probably no coincidence that former Bears quarterback Josh McCown is now in Tampa Bay and likely to be the Bucs' starter.
“It's very similar [to what I had in Chicago], at least on paper," McCown told Roy Commings of the Tampa Tribune. "There's still a lot of work to do. We have to get out there and [Evans] has to learn the offense and we have to start building together, but it was good.''
If any team has a chance to match Chicago's ability to physically dominate through the air, it's the Bucs.
Jackson is already a bona fide star. Only once in the last six seasons has he not cracked 1,000 receiving yards—his injury-plagued 2010 campaign, when he played in just five games. Since 2008, Jackson is ninth in both receiving yards (6,227) and touchdown catches (43). His 17.7 yards per catch over that span trails only Josh Gordon among qualifying receivers.
Let's call Jackson a potential Brandon Marshall for Tampa Bay.
That makes Evans the new Alshon Jeffery.
There are comparisons: Both were decorated receivers from the SEC, both win with wingspan and jumping abilities over pure speed and both need only an inch of separation to turn in a highlight play.
Jeffery required a year to acclimate to the pro game, but once Marc Trestman came on board, he almost instantly developed into a top-10 receiver, catching 89 passes for 1,421 yards and seven scores during his sophomore season. It's certainly possible Evans will have a similar growth timeline.
The tight end position could be another match. Seferian-Jenkins runs well and displays above-average athleticism at an almost identical size as Martellus Bennett.
But why would teams want to copy Chicago's trend?
Probably for plays like these:
This was one of the best catches of 2013. Somehow, Jeffery elevated and caught this football despite Vikings cornerback Chris Cook being in perfect position and the play's proximity to the sideline. However, Jeffery's size dominates Cook, and he's able to latch and hold on to the third-down heave. He also gets two feet inbounds. It's very unlikely that a shorter receiver makes this play or even comes close.
How many quarterbacks could have complete trust in a throw like this? McCown should have been sacked, but instead he escaped and chucked up a jump ball to the end zone for Marshall. And, as expected, Marshall won over the smaller cornerback, this time Green Bay's Tramon Williams. He's able to use his size to contort his frame and reach the football with relative ease. In the process, a minus play turns into six points.
Big in size and big in the clutch. In Week 2, the Bears needed a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Having this many large targets becomes such an asset in these situations, when a field goal just won't cut it down in the red zone.
On this play, Bennett runs a quick wheel route in behind the clear-out receiver, and Jay Cutler is able to give him a catchable ball—what throw isn't catchable for this trio?—at the pylon. Watch as Bennett's huge frame allows him to reach the pass and keep the defender out of the play. Quarterbacks must love having receivers with the this kind of catching radius.
With targets like Jeffery, Marshall and Bennett, it's probably no surprise that Chicago finished 2013 ranked in the top 10 of both yards per attempt and red-zone scoring percentage.
It's possible the Bears will be even better in 2014.
The offense's new No. 3 receiver is expected to be Marquess Wilson, who, at 6'3", has 4.5 speed and a 34.5" vertical jump. He could add a fourth target over 6'3" to the Bears' already towering group of pass-catchers.
Receivers coach Mike Groh can see the progress in Wilson.
"He's had a tremendous offseason," Groh said, via Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. "He's shown up in great shape. He's gained weight. I think from a strength standpoint and a bulk standpoint, he has a lot more confidence. Hopefully that will show when we get to go against the defense and can see if he can hold up at the point."
Few secondaries have the man power to consistently handle four receivers as large as the quartet in Chicago, save for maybe the Seahawks.
But considering secondaries are starting to lean the way of Seattle's—getting longer in the process—the one obvious retort on offense is to match length with length, and the Bears currently have the optimal model.
In a copycat league, Chicago's receivers are the envy of the NFL. And when that happens, imitation is typically close behind. The new prototype has been established.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.
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