Bears receivers: To drop or not to drop?

WR Earl Bennett (Howard Smith/USP)

Pro Football Focus recently analyzed Drop Rates for receivers over the past three seasons. One Bears player has the best hands in the NFL, while two others have struggled to hang onto the ball.

At the beginning of free agency this year, Chicago Bears GM Phil Emery traded two third-round picks to the Miami Dolphins for wide receiver Brandon Marshall. The move was met with much trepidation, yet that revolved more around his off-the-field troubles. Numbers-wise, no one can question Marshall's on-field production during his six seasons in the NFL.

Marshall has averaged 95 catches and 1,187 yards the past five seasons. Those numbers spike to 102 catches and 1,237 yards per season during his three years with Jay Cutler in Denver. If Marshall can again produce those types of numbers in Chicago, he'll easily go down as one of the most-productive receivers in franchise history.


WR Brandon Marshall
Jerry Lai/US Presswire

Yet amidst all the hype, most have forgotten about one troubling aspect of Marshall's game: his penchant for drops. Pro Football Focus (PFF) recently published its Drop Rate metric, ranking NFL receivers over the past three years on their predilection toward the dropped pass. The formula takes into account the number of "catchable" balls thrown to a player, divided by his number of drops.

Over the past three years, no other receiver in the league has dropped more catchable passes than Marshall (35). That is slightly deceiving though, as the number of overall drops is directly correlated to the number of passes thrown one's way. The three wideouts with the most targets the past three years – Marshall, Roddy White and Wes Welker – are also top three in drops.

Which is why PFF measures Drop Rates, to provide drop numbers on a per-opportunity basis, allowing us a clearer picture at whose hands have been the worst since 2009. For the purposes of this study, wide receivers need to have seen at least 125 catchable balls during the three-year span. That bar for inclusion left 61 receivers to consider.

Not surprisingly, former Bears wideout Roy Williams leads the league during that time frame, with a 14.62 percent drop rate. Green Bay's James Jones is second on the list (14.39 percent). His teammate, Donald Driver, sits at seventh overall (12.29 percent).

Rounding out the Top 10 is Marshall (11.55 percent). Yet he's not the only Bears player with slippery fingers. Devin Hester sits at 15th overall (10.29). As of this moment, those are the two starting wideouts on Chicago's roster. As such, expect a lot of dropped passes out of both Marshall and Hester this year, especially with the bullets Cutler is wont to throw.

Yet don't expect the same out of the slot, where Earl Bennett will be lining up all season. Of the 127 catchable balls thrown Bennett's way the past three years, he has dropped just four. His 3.15 percent Drop Rate over that timeframe is better than every other wide receiver in the league.


WR Earl Bennett
Jonathan Daniel/Getty

In essence, Bennett has the best hands in the NFL. Last year, he was grossly underused late in the season, catching just seven passes in the team's final six contests. Yet blame that on a lack of other options at receiver, particularly after Johnny Knox went down, which allowed opposing secondaries to roll coverage over the top of Bennett on most plays.

With the four new receivers added this year – as well as a group of tight ends that will actually be used as pass catchers – teams won't be able to double Bennett any longer. Cutler has shown extreme confidence in Bennett, going back to their days as teammates in Vanderbilt. This was especially so during OTAs and minicamp, where Cutler repeatedly utilized Bennett in the passing game.

Which is why it's reasonable to expect a career year out of Bennett this season. Those of you that play Fantasy Football will want to jump on Bennett in the mid-to-late rounds of your draft.

Despite his drops, Marshall is going to get his looks. I'll cut off my left pinkie toe if, barring injury, he doesn't lead the team in targets this year. With that should come numerous big plays but it will also lead to plenty of drops. You've been warned.

Yet on third downs, when the team needs crucial yards to keep drives alive and the defense off the field, expect Cutler to look the way of Bennett, who is the most-dependable receiver in the NFL.

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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.

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