Chicago Bears: Donnie Avery

Bears free agency preview: Wide receivers

January, 31, 2013
Dwayne BoweGeorge Gojkovich/Getty ImagesBears GM Phil Emery is familiar with Dwayne Bowe after spending three years in Kansas City.

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The Chicago Bears already have a significant amount invested at wide receiver next season with a combined $11.650 million in salary cap space between Brandon Marshall ($9.3 million) and Earl Bennett ($2.350 million) and the second-round pick the club used last year on Alshon Jeffery.

But while Marshall remains one of the best in the game, Bennett and Jeffery have both dealt with their share of injuries, which raises the question of whether the Bears need to protect themselves by grabbing another moderately priced wide receiver in the offseason.

[+] EnlargeAlshon Jeffery
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireAlshon Jeffery caught 24 passes for 367 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games as a rookie.
Devin Hester is under contract for one more season, but he completely fell off the map last year, especially on offense where he appears to have zero chemistry with quarterback Jay Cutler. Maybe the Bears keep Hester for the sake of the return game, but it seems like a long-shot that he will be asked to contribute much on offense. With Lovie Smith and Darryl Drake no longer in the building, Hester would probably benefit from a fresh start in a new NFL city. But that's an issue the Bears have yet to address.

Eric Weems is signed through 2014, but he also seems to do his best work on special teams.

It would be wonderful to see Johnny Knox return to the field after the horrific spine injury he suffered late in the 2011 season against the Seattle Seahawks, because Knox is exactly the type of down-the-field vertical threat the Bears missed last year in the passing game.

Although Knox is determined to make a comeback and continues to work toward resuming football-related activities, it's still unknown if Knox will ever play again, which makes it difficult to count on him to fill a role in 2013. Knox is officially a free agent after his original rookie contract expired at the end of the regular season.

The wildcard in this group might be 6-foot-1 Joe Anderson, the second-year man out of Texas Southern who made an impact on special teams late last season with a couple of big hits. Anderson carries himself with a certain confidence, that should serve him well when he tries to win a roster spot next summer in training camp.

But looking at the unit as a whole, and given the injury concerns surrounding Bennett and Jeffery, the Bears could be in the market for another receiver in either the draft or free agency. If the Bears go the veteran route, here is a look at some of the projected unrestricted free agent wideouts, in no particular order.

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Fantasy hint: Brandon Marshall and targets

November, 28, 2012
My general approach to fantasy football is to leave the analysis and recommendations to the experts, of which ESPN has an entire staff. Occasionally, however, I'll try to pass along information that might be of use to you and your team.

In checking out how often the Chicago Bears have thrown to receiver Brandon Marshall, I stumbled across league-wide target numbers. The chart displays each NFC North team's top two targets, via ESPN's Stats & Information, and also provides percentages to put those figures in better perspective. (The Green Bay Packers have two players tied for the second-most targets.)

Use that information as you will. It probably doesn't reveal anything that close observers didn't realize. The most interesting point to take, be it from a fantasy or conventional standpoint, is how heavily Marshall is involved relative to his teammates and other receivers around the NFL.

The Bears threw in Marshall's direction on 17 passes last Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, bringing his season total to 121 targets. That's the third-most in the NFL and second in the NFC North behind the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson (122). But it's important to note that the Lions (501 attempts) have thrown 173 more passes this season than the Bears (328) this season. As the chart shows, Marshall has been the target of more than a third of the Bears' passes.

For context, consider that the NFL's leader in targets, the Indianapolis Colts' Reggie Wayne, has seen 29.6 percent of his team's passes (133 of 449).

So all told, Marshall has had the NFL's third-most passes thrown his way even though his team has thrown the league's fourth-fewest number of passes. The differential between Marshall and the Bears' next-most targeted receiver, Earl Bennett, is 82 passes. That is by far the biggest discrepancy in the NFL. The next-largest is the gap between Wayne and Donnie Avery, who has been targeted 83 times.

For the most part, I see no problem with the Bears' approach. One of the most popular NFL criticisms is of teams who don't or can't emphasize their playmakers. Marshall is one of the league's best receivers, and the Bears are finding more ways to get him the ball on a percentage basis than any other team is with their top receiver.

It has resulted in 81 receptions, 1,017 yards and eight touchdowns. Those figures rank second, fifth and second in the NFL, respectively, among wide receivers.

You have to assume the Bears will at some point face a situation where defenses take Marshall out of the game, forcing them to rely more heavily on Bennett and others. But that's a secondary criticism at best. Suffice it to say, the Bears are getting their money's worth from Marshall in their first season together.