Chicago Bears' newest receivers ready to battle for spots

When former Pro Bowl wide receiver Alshon Jeffery signed with the Eagles on March 9, the Bears lost their most productive pass catcher of the previous four seasons.

And last month's release of injury-prone veteran Eddie Royal left undrafted Cam Meredith as the Bears' only returning wide receiver with more than 20 catches in an NFL season. Meredith's breakout 2016 season included 66 receptions for 888 yards.

Kevin White, the Bears' 2015 first-round pick (seventh overall), is being counted on to complement Meredith and fulfill high expectations after playing just four games in his first two seasons because of injuries.

But Meredith and White by themselves don't provide nearly enough depth and firepower for a team without a quarterback who has ever taken a single snap for the Bears.

So Bears G.M. Ryan Pace and his staff brought in a group of veteran unrestricted free agents that could make the wide receiver position one of the deepest and most competitive in a training camp that coach John Fox expects to have position battles up and down the roster.

"Throughout our whole team, regardless of the position," Fox said, "I think we've created a lot more competition."

That's particularly true at wide receiver, which will make that position one of the most interesting to watch during camp.

The additions include 2012 first-round draft pick Kendall Wright, who, in his second NFL season, caught 94 passes for 1,079 yards. Then there's Victor Cruz, who over a three-year span with the New York Giants, averaged 80 catches, 1,209 yards, 15.0 yards per reception and 8 touchdowns.

And don't forget Markus Wheaton, whose ascending career with the Pittsburgh Steelers - 97 catches for 1,393 yards in 2014-15 - was derailed by last season's shoulder injury that limited him to three games.

Wheaton is close to 100 percent and vows he'll be at full strength when training camp begins. The Bears thought enough of the 26-year-old to give him a two-year, $11 million deal that includes $6 million guaranteed.

That seems like a lot of loot for a guy who caught 4 passes for 51 yards last season, but it'll be well worth the investment if Wheaton's top two seasons prove to be just a launching point for an ascending career.

"There are so many factors that go into it, but if you're asking me, I'm going to say we're just getting started," the speedy 5-foot-11, 189-pound Wheaton said. "We want to go far beyond those numbers."

In Cruz's case, if he even approaches the level he played at from 2011-13, his one-year, $2 million contract will be a wise investment.

"I think I'm close," Cruz said. "It's just about getting my bearings. The more routes I run, the more I build a rapport with Mike (Glennon) and get myself out there learning the plays and learning everything that needs to be learned, I have that potential to be that guy you saw a few years ago."

The 27-year-old Wright is also on a one-year, $2 million base deal, but he could earn up to twice that amount if he achieves production-based incentives. After his 2013 breakout season, Wright fell out of favor with Tennessee Titans coaches and was hampered by nagging injuries. At this time a year ago, he wasn't even practicing because of a patellar tendon injury. Like Wheaton and Cruz, Wright is most effective in the slot, but all three are capable of playing outside and will factor in four-wideout formations.

"Kendall's had good production in this league, primarily as a slot," Fox said. "He's got outstanding quickness. He's blended in pretty well with us. He's got a good feel for the game. He's had good production in our league, albeit not real recently.

"I like what I've seen from him."

Wright is anxious to get back to his previous production after being underutilized in Tennessee. Last season, he had career lows with just four starts and 42 targets, less than a third of the 139 targets he had in 2013.

"I feel like every year since I had that (big) year, I can get back to that," he said. "(The down years) happened because of other things that people don't see, but that doesn't matter to me. When I'm playing, I know I can be effective. I just want to be out there and be a reliable target for the quarterback.

"I don't really feel like I played a lot of football last year."

All three veteran newcomers could say the same, and all three will be competing to see much more action in 2017 than they did last season.

• Follow Bob's Bears reports on Twitter: @BobLeGere.

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