It's rare that a team goes into camp unsure who tops the depth chart at quarterback, but that's the case in Chicago this year. Apparently, coach Lovie Smith decided, with a coin flip, to give Rex Grossman first-team reps. The wide receiver picture isn't any clearer, with last year's top two receivers -- Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad -- playing elsewhere in 2008 and Devin Hester a question mark.
Can this lineup of players possibly develop into anything good? We thought it would be interesting to take a look at Chicago's quarterbacks and wide receivers using Football Outsiders similarity scores (explained here) to see what happened to similar players at the same age. Similarity scores are missing a lot of information -- they don't consider the quality of teammates, for example -- but they do give us a good idea of what might happen to each player in the future. They consider all seasons since 1978, and an asterisk represents prorated stats from the 1982 and 1987 strike years.
Here is a look at players who, over a two-year span, were similar to Rex Grossman during his 2006 and 2007 seasons.
Tim Couch (2003), Dave Brown (1997), Tony Eason (1987), Randy Wright (1988), Chris Miller (1992), Pat Haden (1979), Tony Banks (2000), Stan Humphries (1993).
Is there hope for Rex Grossman? Stan Humphries rebounded from his poor 1993 and led the 1994 Chargers to the Super Bowl. But that was also a team driven primarily by defense and the ground game. Humphries didn't exactly light it up -- he was tied for tenth in touchdown passes and was around the league average in net yards per pass attempt. Humphries had another average year in 1995, then faded away after a poor 1996.
For the rest of these players, a couple bad years put an end to their time as NFL starters. Dave Brown and Tony Eason moved on to new teams and flamed out. Couch and Wright never played again. Banks lasted a long time as a backup, as did two guys who nearly made the list, Bubby Brister and Trent Dilfer. There's really no record of a quarterback similar to Grossman developing into an above-average starter -- the closest thing might be Vinny Testaverde (1990-1991) turning into the quarterback version of Methuselah.
Trying to run similarity scores off what Orton did the past two years is a bit silly. Instead, let's look at players who were similar to Orton as a rookie. Did any of them develop into quality NFL quarterbacks?
Bruce Gradkowski (2006), David Whitehurst (1978), Steve Walsh (1990), Mike Pagel* (1982), Chris Miller (1988), Danny Kanell (1997), Joey Harrington (2002), Rick Mirer (1994).
Chris Miller wasn't half bad. That's about it. The odds of Kyle Orton developing into a quality NFL starter are roughly the same as the odds of Oakland winning Super Bowl XLIII.
We'll look at similar wide receivers over a three-year span, giving age as well as receptions, yards, and touchdowns the next year.
I discussed Booker in a piece on free-agent wide receivers a few months ago. Most of his comparables didn't have much of a career left. The three top players combined for four more catches before retirement. However, receivers seem to be lasting longer into their thirties in recent years, and the best-case scenario for Booker is to follow the lead of Bobby Engram. Engram's best seasons have come in his thirties, including his first 1,000-yard season in 2007, at the age of 34. On the other hand, Booker doesn't get Matt Hasselbeck to throw those passes.
You don't get a lot of receivers in their third season who catch only six passes in a full season, but eventually go on to develop into NFL starters. Most of the players similar to Bradley either disappeared or became known for their play on special teams (Sam Aiken just missed the list). The big, glaring exception, giving Chicago fans something to feel hopeful, is Donald Driver. In his fourth year, Driver won a starting job and turned into one of the league's top receivers. However, there is a big difference between Bradley and Driver. Driver was a seventh-round pick who had to gradually work his way into the lineup by proving himself. Mark Bradley was a second-round pick who keeps squandering a sure place in the starting lineup because he can't stay healthy.
There are no historical players similar to Devin Hester, but if he had the hands of a wide receiver, would he drop so many punts? Now if you could graft Booker's hands onto Hester's body, you would have a player.
As you might imagine, similarity scores don't really give you a list of similar players when you have a receiver who went from 48 catches to 23 catches to two catches over the space of three seasons. So instead of normal similarity scores, I ran a list of the players who were most similar to Lloyd's 2005 and 2006 seasons but then, like Lloyd, had single-digit catches the next year.
No surprise, it isn't a good group either. A lot of these guys just disappeared or were mediocre. Qadry Ismail is a bit of an interesting story: After barely playing on special teams for Miami in 1997 and New Orleans in 1998, he signed with Baltimore and became the Ravens' top receiver, with two 1,000-yard seasons in 1999 and 2001.
Sticking out like a huge sore thumb is Willie Green, who started for three years in Detroit and then played a handful of games for Tampa Bay in 1994. What happened to resuscitate Green's career in 1995? Expansion. Green ended up starting half the season for Carolina across from Mark Carrier. Chicago's offense this year is practically expansion quality, so perhaps Lloyd could pull a Willie Green.
Nobody knows who will win these Chicago position battles, but the losers are pretty clear: Chicago Bears fans.
Aaron Schatz is president of Football Outsiders Inc. and the lead author of "Pro Football Prospectus 2008," now on sale online and in bookstores everywhere.