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Data Entry: What Passing Targets do the Bears Need?

| February 13th, 2018

There has been and will continue to be a great deal of talk about how the Bears need to add at least one stud wide receiver to their roster this off-season. Everybody wants a Julio Jones or Antonio Brown, with good reason, and the Bears are in desperate need of an upgrade in talent at the position after a season in which they finished last in the NFL in both passing yards and touchdowns, 25th in yards per attempt, and 26th in passer rating.

The Bears are going to add more talent at WR. But what exactly do they need? Should they look for one great player, two good players, or three plus capable players?

In an attempt to answer this question, I looked at how top passing offenses split their production among targets in recent years. After all, that’s the ultimate goal for the Bears, right? They want to become one of the top passing offenses in the NFL.

Accordingly, I looked at top 10 passing teams according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA for each of 2015, 2016, and 2017 and tracked how many receiving yards each of their top 5 leaders in that category had for the season. While this DVOA stat is not a perfect metric, it is an attempt to measure the efficiency of a passing attack instead of volume, which you would get from just looking at passing yards. The full list can be seen here.


No Clear Pattern

The first thing that jumps out is that there is no single defined way to have a top 10 passing offense. Some teams did it with one clear stud and a bunch of secondary weapons. Others had two dominant targets. Some had no clear dominant target at all.

To help visualize, I split yardage totals into 250-yard categories, starting at 500 yards and working up. Out of the 30 teams in this study:

  • Only 10 had a player top 1250 receiving yards for the season; roughly an All Pro caliber season, with about 7-8 players top this mark league-wide in a given year.
  • 7 teams had 2 players with 1000 or more yards, which┬ároughly 20-25 players league-wide do per year.
  • 6 teams didn’t have a single player hit that mark.

The full data can be seen below, with the number of players who fall in each category filling the boxes.

While there were a variety of ways teams split up their targets, there is a rough average that’s useful to have in mind. 31 players topped 1,000 yards, or roughly 1 per team. Another 25 (again, about 1 per team) topped 750 yards, while 49 more (we’ll round up and say 2 per team) topped 500 yards.

So on average, top 10 passing teams in the past few years have had:

  • 1 target capable of producing 1,000 receiving yards
  • 1 target in the 750-1,000 yard range
  • 2 targets in the 500-750 yard range.

It’s usually just 4 main guys, as only 3 teams had a 5th even reach 500 yards in a season (31 yards per game). Thus going into training camp with those 4 guys should be a good general goal to set for the Bears this off-season.


Bears’ Current Roster

So what might that look like for Chicago? Let’s start by looking at what they currently have on the roster, which will help us see what they should look to add via free agency and/or the draft.

Their top returning target is Cam Meredith, who had 888 yards in 14 games in 2016 and missed all of 2017 with a knee injury. He didn’t start that season out on the 53-man roster but produced once he got a chance. If we extrapolate that 14-game production to a full 16 game season, that would give Meredith 1,015 yards. So the last time he saw the field he produced like a 1,000 yard receiver, and that was as a 2nd year undrafted free agent who had switched over from quarterback and was still learning the position. By all reports, Cam had a fantastic camp and preseason in 2017 before getting hurt, so I think it’s safe to say he should be viewed as a 1,000 yard receiver going forward if he can stay healthy.

Their next highest target still under team control is running back Tarik Cohen, who had 53 catches for 358 yards as a rookie in 2017. Cohen should be used more frequently and more effectively by a more creative offensive staff. He also should be expected to improve from his rookie to 2nd season, making an increase in production a reasonable expectation for 2018. I will tentatively slot in Cohen as a guy who produces in the 500-750 yard range through the air. This expectation matches the production we’ve seen from Darren Sproles, who is consistently mentioned as a comparison to Cohen and produced between 497 and 710 receiving yards for 5 straight years between two different teams in the prime of his career.

The other passing target of note who returns is tight end Adam Shaheen, another 2017 rookie who showed some promise, albeit in a much smaller sample size than Cohen. Shaheen was buried on the depth chart for most of the season and finished having caught 12 of 14 targets for 127 yards. This is going to require some extrapolation, but virtually all of Shaheen’s production came in the only 3 games where he played starters’ snaps. He had 124 yards in those games. Extrapolating that to a full season would give Shaheen about 660 yards, though admittedly extrapolating from a 3-game sample size is certainly far from foolproof. Still, I think it’s reasonable to say Shaheen can be another guy who produces around 500-750 yards. There’s certainly upside for more there, but I’m not going to bank on it just yet.

There are more potential guys on the roster (or free agents they could re-sign) who could possibly contribute, including Kendall Wright, Dontrelle Inman, Markus Wheaton, and Kevin White, but I think these are the only three who it’s safe to say will be important figures in the passing game in 2018.


Help Wanted

With that in mind, the Bears certainly need to add passing targets this offseason, though maybe not as much as is widely reported. If we go with the projections outlined above for Meredith, Cohen, and Shaheen, which I feel are all very reasonable based on what we’ve seen from them so far, the Bears need one player capable of a solid 750-1000 yard season to fit the typical top-4 structure outlined above.

Of course, another consideration to keep in mind is depth. In an ideal world, the Bears probably only need one more solid WR to be okay, but injuries happen in football, and Chicago can’t leave themselves as shallow as they were last year. With that in mind, signing two solid free agent wide receivers would be ideal.

(I will have a follow-up next week looking at the physical profile of receivers who have found success in this offense, and will examine the free agent class in more detail then to look at options.)

And then the Bears should certainly look to add a wide receiver to develop in the draft, though certainly not in round 1, and probably not in round 2 either. They should also look to add smaller pieces like a move tight end to complement Shaheen and a 3rd running back who can both be a solid runner and receiver (re-signing Benny Cunningham could work here).


QB Matters

Finally, I want to use this data set to point out that the most important part of having a good passing attack is having a good quarterback. The only quarterbacks who led their teams to top 10 passing offenses each of the last three years were Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Ben Roethlisberger, three of the best QBs in the NFL. The only other QBs to make the list twice were Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Alex Smith, and Kirk Cousins. Even if we look at QBs who made it once, there’s only a few that aren’t widely viewed as good QBs (hello Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, and Andy Dalton!).

If you want to have a top 10 passing attack in the NFL, you need a good QB. Surrounding him with good weapons is also important, but if Mitchell Trubisky doesn’t pan out, it won’t matter for the Bears.


Conclusions

The Bears certainly need to add some more options in the passing game to their roster this off-season, but what exactly they should be looking for is not quite what most people seem to think.

The main figures in an improved passing game will likely be guys who are already on the roster. The key to the Bears becoming a good passing attack is the natural growth and development of Mitchell Trubisky, Cam Meredith, Tarik Cohen, and Adam Shaheen. But the team also needs to add probably two additional, reliable names to the mix and some better depth options around them.

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