3) CHICAGO BEARS: When healthy, Alshon Jeffery is arguably the most dominant pass catcher in the NFC North.
Oftentimes, it seems as if Jay Cutler only has eyes for the 26-year-old veteran and the numbers back that up when you consider that Jeffery averaged over 10 targets per game in the nine games he played in last year.
What doomed the long, acrobatic playmaker were a variety of soft tissue injuries, including an early-season calf ailment, two hamstring pulls, a strained groin and a shoulder mishap, which has led some to question Jeffery’s personal conditioning. It may be no coincidence that he struggled with his weight while playing for Steve Spurrier as a South Carolina Gamecock.
What’s more, his injury-marred 2015 campaign occurred in a contract year. As it stands, the Bears haven’t locked up their star wideout and have instead slapped Jeffery with the organization’s franchise tag.
What this all means for the Bears is that Cutler’s go-to man is out training on his own until he comes to terms on a long-term agreement. Could a repeat of 2015 be in the cards for Jeffery from a health standpoint?
Though Chicago invested their seventh-pick in the first round on Kevin White last spring, they have yet to see the former West Virginia Mountaineer in action due to a season-ending stress fracture in his shin.
From a raw tools perspective, White is a unique blend of size, strength and elite 4.3 speed. But it’s doubtful that his skills are commensurate with his athletic ability given the fact that the 23-year-old played only one year of major college ball in a program that ran a very simplified offense.
Frustration is mounting among Bears supporters in regards to the development of Marquess Wilson, who is annually tabbed as a sleeper on the rise, but has yet to truly emerge as a consistent contributor.
But although Wilson is approaching his fourth year in the Windy City, he’s actually three months younger than White. He’s a six-foot-four vertical threat with amazing tracking ability and body control.
If John Fox and company want to rid themselves of this inconsistent, but promising youngster, teams will be standing in line for the chance to insert him into their own offenses.
As for the soon-to-be 30-year-old Eddie Royal, he wasn’t even close to being the difference-maker GM Ryan Pace envisioned when the journeyman was inked to a three-year, $15-million deal.
The well-traveled journeyman produced 37 catches and a single touchdown in addition to missing seven games as a result of knee issues and illness. Royal always seemed to fall just short of making a big play in his limited opportunities and eventually lost targets to tight end Zach Miller.
The Bears will likely keep him around due to the $4.5 million he’s due in guaranteed money. But Pace may have already drafted Royal’s successor in shifty slot receiver Daniel Braverman, who has dropped only 11 out of 198 catchable balls in the last two years, according to PFF.
The other receiver of note is eighth-year pro Marc Mariani, who is known more for his punt returning prowess. However, the Montana native was highly productive when called into action by turning 19 of 22 receptions (86.4 percent) into first downs, which ranks him second in that category among receivers with 20 or more receptions.
The general health of this team’s top four receivers and the rate at which White acclimates himself to the pro game are what will determine the effectiveness of this unit in 2016.
Next: The defending NFC North Division champs