The following is the third of nine position previews in advance of training camp.
A diverse mix of veterans and young players at the receiver position should generate some intense competition this summer in Bourbonnais.
During the offseason the Bears added free agents Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle, Markus Wheaton and Kendall Wright to a group of holdovers that includes Cameron Meredith, Kevin White, Josh Bellamy, Deonte Thompson and Daniel Braverman.
Cruz is fully recovered from two serious leg injuries and is confident that he can revert to the form he showed during three productive seasons with the Giants from 2011-13.
Cruz emerged as a star in his second NFL season in 2011, helping the Giants win the Super Bowl by catching 82 passes for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns. He followed with 86 receptions for 1,092 yards and 10 TDs in 2012 and 73 catches for 998 yards and four TDs in 2013.
But Cruz’s career was derailed six games into the 2014 season when he tore the patellar tendon in his right knee against the Eagles. He seemed to be on the road to recovery nearly a year later but suffered a calf injury that sidelined him for the entire 2015 campaign.
Cruz returned last year, appearing in 15 games with 12 starts and catching 39 passes for 586 yards and one touchdown. In the opener—his first regular-season game in 700 days—he caught a 3-yard TD pass from Eli Manning that lifted the Giants to a 20-19 win over the Cowboys.
Wheaton is in a similar situation. Playing for the Steelers, the speedy wideout caught 53 passes for 644 yards and two TDs in 2014 and 44 passes for 749 yards and five TDs in 2015. But a torn labrum he sustained last preseason limited him to just three games and eventually led to surgery in early December.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace has tracked Wheaton since even before he was selected by the Steelers in the third round of the 2013 draft out of Oregon State.
“I really like his makeup and his toughness going all the way back to Oregon State,” Pace said. “He’s a guy who can really run and gives us that element in our offense that I think that we need—speed.”
Wright played the best football of his NFL career under Dowell Loggains with the Titans and is excited about reuniting with the offensive coordinator in Chicago.
Wright was selected by Tennessee in the first round of the 2012 draft and excelled in his first two seasons with Loggains as his coordinator, catching 64 passes for 626 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie and 94 passes for 1,079 yards and two TDs in 2013.
“With Dowell, when he was there, he obviously let me play,” Wright said after signing with the Bears in March. “I was on the field. Actually I wasn’t getting 10, 15 plays a game. He didn’t put any limitations on my game. He didn’t tell me to just play slot. He let me play whatever I wanted to play, whatever position. The more you can do with him, the better you’ll be.”
The Bears are hoping that White is finally able to stay healthy after missing 28 of 32 games in his first two seasons. Selected with the seventh pick in the 2015 draft, White sat out his entire rookie season with a stress fracture in his left leg and then broke his fibula in the same leg in the fourth game last year, eventually undergoing surgery for the second straight year.
“It’s got to happen now,” White said during the offseason. “I’ve got to turn it up. Even in Year 1, Year 2, I always wanted to turn it up and show what I could do, so to me, in Year 3, it’s time.”
White has shown promise when healthy; his 19 receptions last season were the most ever by a Bears player in his first four NFL games. The key as he enters his third year, of course, is for the 6-3, 215-pounder to stay on the field and out of the training room.
The Bears also have high expectations for Meredith, a converted college quarterback who enjoyed a breakout 2016 season but still hasn’t reached his ceiling.
After catching 11 passes for 120 yards in 11 games as an undrafted rookie from Illinois State in 2015, Meredith led the Bears with 66 receptions for 888 yards and four touchdowns last year.
“Cam just has a great attitude right now,” Pace said during the offseason. “He’s getting better. I just love his skill set, love his professionalism and I think we’re going to see him ascend.”