Bears own top WR duo, hands down
Brilliant play of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery will deliver NFC North crown
Julio Jones is wrong, and there isn't much to debate.
The best wide receiver tandem in the National Football League does not reside in Atlanta. Yes, Jones is one of the best young receivers in the league, and he and Roddy White, when healthy, give Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan two proven targets who help make Atlanta's offense formidable.
But the NFL's best receiving duo resides in Chicago: Mr. Reliable, Brandon Marshall, and the young upstart, Alshon Jeffery. They produced the big numbers in 2013. Playing on an offense that returns 11 starters under second-year coach Marc Trestman, Marshall and Jeffrey are poised to again be the league's most prolific duo in 2014.
They also make Chicago the team to beat in the NFC North entering the season.
I know, I know. The division goes through Green Bay. The Packers have the most accomplished quarterback in the division and one of the best in the entire league. With Aaron Rodgers on the shelf for seven games and most of an eighth last season, the Packers still won the NFC North because the Bears, Lions and Vikings could not capitalize. Each wasted valuable opportunities.
But Chicago will enter training camp next month with serious upgrades to a defense that pulled guys off the street last season to try offsetting a rash of injuries. Injuries cost Chicago defenders 55 games last season, which contributed to the Bears' historically bad showing. They allowed the most points (478) and the most yards (6,313) in franchise history, gave up a league-worst 161.4 rushing yards per game, and did not hold a single opponent under 20 points.
That is why general manager Phil Emery used four of his first five draft picks on defensive players, including Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller 14th overall. Emery rebuilt the defensive line, adding ends Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston in free agency and drafting tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton in the second and third rounds, respectively.
Even a minimal improvement on defense should help, because this Bears team will be carried by what should be one of the most explosive offenses in the league led by Marshall, Jeffery, quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte.
The Bears' offensive line is finally stable. The interior of the line -- center Roberto Garza and guards Kyle Long and Matt Slauson -- is now considered a strength. Last season, for the first time in his Chicago career, Cutler was well-protected, with the Bears giving up only 30 sacks, tied for the fourth-fewest in the NFL.
And while Cutler has downplayed it, he added bulk and strength this offseason in an attempt to make it through all 16 regular-season games for the first time since 2009, his first season in Chicago. Aiding Cutler's play is Forte, who gained a career-high 1,933 yards from scrimmage last season.
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And then there's that lethal receiving duo.
Last season, Chicago and Denver were the only teams to feature two receivers ranked in the top 15 in receiving yards. Jeffery had a breakout season with 89 catches, 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns. He had 20 catches of 20 or more yards and seven of 40 or more yards. Marshall produced his seventh consecutive 1,000-yard season, finishing with 100 catches for 1,295 yards and 12 touchdowns, and he did it coming off a hip injury that didn't allow him to hit his stride until nearly the midpoint of the season.
Marshall and Jeffrey combined for 189 catches, 2,716 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns. By comparison, Jones and White combined for 171 catches, 2,549 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2012, their most productive season together.
It's possible Jones and White would have surpassed those totals last season had injuries not affected each player. White was bothered by a nagging hamstring problem, while a foot injury ended Jones' season after only five games.
Before he was injured, Jones was on a staggering pace to finish with 131 catches and 1,856 yards. He has emerged as one of the league's fastest receivers and most dynamic playmakers. But White will turn 33 this season.
Marshall turned 30 in March, but the Bears saw fit to sign him to a lucrative contract extension in May. After catching just 24 passes for 367 yards as a rookie, Jeffery was able to sneak up on some opponents last season. That will not be the case this season. But with Marshall still commanding double-teams, Jeffery will have his opportunities. And if defenses try to take Jeffery out of the game, that will open up things for Marshall. One makes the other better -- that's how great tandems operate.
Atlanta has an enviable duo, but Chicago's has been statistically more productive, which makes Jeffery and Marshall better and the Bears the team to beat in the NFC North.