Bears' search for WR1 could hinge on draft gamble, unlikely trade originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
Justin Fields' ascent has made the 2022 Bears season a success. But this is still a 3-10 team with holes everywhere outside of quarterback.
While a lot of general manager Ryan Poles' offseason work should focus on improving the Bears in the trenches, the need to find a true No. 1 receiver to elevate the passing game should be at the top of the list.
It's not a coincidence that Josh Allen's Year 3 explosion coincided with the arrival of Stefon Diggs. There is no substitute for what an elite receiver can do for a young quarterback and an offense as a whole. Look how Tyreek Hill has made life easy for Tua Tagovailoa (h/t Mike McDaniel) and how the gravity of Davante Adams has opened up running room for Josh Jacobs to explode in Vegas.
There are very few quarterbacks who can be great without a game-changing receiver. Tom Brady did it for years in New England. Patrick Mahomes is doing it now without Hill. However, both also had the luxury of throwing to two of the greatest tight ends in NFL history.
The Bears would love to find their version of the Diggs acquisition this offseason. That won't be easy, though.
Let's start with the upcoming free-agent class. After A.J. Brown, Terry McLaurin, Deebo Samuel, and DK Metcalf all signed extensions before this season, there are no top-tier receivers set to hit the market.
New England Patriots wide receiver Jakobi Meyers and Kansas City Chiefs wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster are probably the top options. Neither are game-changers.
The past four draft classes have produced several stud wide receivers. As things stand now, the Bears have the inside track to secure the No. 2 pick in the 2023 draft. If that happens, the right move is to trade down and acquire more draft capital to add blue-chip talent to the roster.
If the Bears trade back from No. 2, that could bring wide receiver into play as an option in Round 1. I think Poles should try to add an elite defensive line prospect, but if he slides down and misses out on Will Anderson and Jalen Carter, the board opens up a bit.
The problem is that this wide receiver class is not as strong as in years past. There's no Ja'Marr Chase or Jaylen Waddle.
TCU's Quentin Johnston has soared up boards and is now seen as WR1 in the class. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, Johnston is a beast with the ball in his hands. His athleticism and ball skills make him a tremendous contested-catch receiver, but he still has work to do to become a well-rounded pass-catcher at the NFL level.
USC's Jordan Addison has elite quickness and is a tough cover one-on-one, but he needs to get stronger. Jaxon Smith-Njigba is a slippery route-runner with great after-the-catch ability, but his deep speed is a question. I really like LSU's Kayshon Boutee, but he's elected to return to Baton Rouge for his senior season.
Tennessee's Jalin Hyatt won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver. A 6-foot junior with elite deep speed, Hyatt was a cheat code for the Vols in 2022. He caught 67 passes for 1,267 yards and 15 touchdowns while being basically unguardable out of stacked formations. Hyatt hasn't decided whether to declare for the draft or return to Tennessee. Hyatt has the vertical separation and route-running ability you want in a WR1, but he will have a transition coming from a spread offense and his play strength will have to be improved.
That's not to say that Hyatt, Johnson, Addison, or Smith-Njigba won't become top-tier wide receivers, but they aren't the sure things we've seen in past years.
With questions surrounding the top guys in the draft class, the trade market might be the Bears' best chance to secure an elite receiver.
I'd look to the 2020 class of receivers first as guys who could be trade candidates as they look to secure a second contract. Could Brandon Aiyuk, Tee Higgins, or Jerry Jeudy be options? Do any of them have No. 1 receiver stuff?
I'd argue Aiyuk and Higgins can be the No. 1 guy on a winning team. Aiyuk has had a breakout third season for the San Francisco 49ers, and Higgins filled in nicely as the Cincinnati Bengals' top guy when Chase was injured. It's hard to judge Jeudy, given the Broncos' rotating cast of quarterbacks and Russell Wilson's ineffectiveness.
Aiyuk and Higgins would be ideal trade targets for the Bears. But I have a hard time seeing the 49ers or Bengals, who are built to win now, selling on their young No. 2 receivers.
At this time last year, we didn't see Brown, Hill, or Adams being traded. So there's a good shot a surprise receiver becomes available this offseason.
If one doesn't, the Bears should feel comfortable extending Darnell Mooney and Chase Claypool while trying to find a draft gem on Day 2. Keep an eye on Josh Downs (North Carolina), Zay Flowers (Boston College), and Rashee Rice (SMU) as Round 2 options for Poles.
A move like the Diggs trade Buffalo pulled off is a franchise-altering move. The Bears will be on the hunt for one of their own. Pairing Fields with an elite receiver can be the rocket fuel needed to accelerate his ascent.
But finding WR1 could be an elusive goal for Poles and the Bears this offseason.
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