Bears face challenge replacing Brandon Marshall's production

A source close to Brandon Marshall looked at Chicago’s trade of the receiver to the New York Jets on Friday simply as business, adding that “you have to accept” the move.

Now the Bears have to be willing to accept the challenge of replacing Marshall’s production, not to mention the very real possibility that such a feat could prove to be close to impossible.

In three seasons with the Bears, Marshall produced 15 games in which he racked up 100-plus yards receiving for a total of 34 such performances in his nine-year career. Since coming into the league in 2006, Marshall ranks third in receptions (773), fifth in receiving touchdowns (65) and sixth in receiving yardage (9,771).

Marshall’s 279 catches for 3,524 yards and 31 touchdowns with the Bears works out to an average of 93 catches per year for 1,174 yards and 10 touchdowns.

So replacing that production won’t be an easy feat for the Bears, and let’s not kid ourselves for one minute that veteran Brian Hartline, brought in Wednesday for a visit at Halas Hall, could get it done. The comparison between the players isn’t even close.

Widely considered a distraction by his detractors, Marshall certainly wouldn’t win Mr. Congeniality in the Bears locker room, where he routinely spoke his mind, and wasn’t afraid to challenge teammates to kick up their games to a higher level. Obviously to management, Marshall’s potential to adversely affect locker room chemistry outweighed the gaudy numbers he’s capable of producing on a consistent basis.

Luckily for the Bears, they go into free agency with close to $30 million in cap space. They’ll need the majority of that cash to upgrade what has been a historically horrid defense, but Friday’s trade of Marshall means that the Bears also will be looking at possibly bringing in receivers in free agency next week as well as in the draft.

It’s unlikely the Bears use the No. 7 overall pick in May on a receiver, considering the team’s myriad needs on defense. But the upcoming class of receivers in the draft presents Chicago several options after the first round. The Bears could use a second-round pick on Miami’s Phillip Dorsett to add a speed element to complement Alshon Jeffery, as the former Hurricane clocked a 4.33 in the 40-yard dash, which ranked as the third-fastest time at the NFL combine.

Other potential targets for the Bears outside of the first round include Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett, Central Arkansas’ Dezmin Lewis and Southern Cal’s Nelson Agholor, along with East Carolina’s Justin Hardy.

The current roster features receivers such as Jeffery, Josh Bellamy, Marc Mariani, Josh Morgan and Marquess Wilson. And it’s worth pondering whether Marshall’s departure will negatively affect Jeffery’s growth, considering it was the former’s tutelage (teaching him how to train, how to eat and how to take care of his body) that paved the way for the latter’s ascension.

The Bears could try to replace Marshall with Jeffery as the No. 1, but it’s worth asking whether Jeffery is actually ready to take on such a role. Once Marshall was lost for the season Dec. 4, Jeffery averaged just four catches during the last three games after averaging 5.6 receptions the previous 13 contests.

With Marshall out of the picture, the Bears must turn to a free-agent crop of receivers that includes several talented players such as Green Bay’s Randall Cobb, Philadelphia’s Jeremy Maclin, Baltimore’s Torrey Smith and Houston’s Andre Johnson. Starting on Saturday, NFL teams can enter into negotiations with impending free agents. So the Bears will likely be on the phone with representatives for at least one of the players listed above.

Cobb reportedly is seeking a deal averaging in the range of $10 million per season, which obviously is more than the $7.5 million Marshall is set to earn in 2015. Maclin caught 85 passes for 1,318 yards with 21 catches for gains of 20 yards or more and 10 touchdowns in 2014 after missing all of 2013 with a torn ACL. Maclin, reportedly, would prefer to re-sign with the Eagles.

Smith lacks Marshall’s consistency, considering he’s eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in only one season and is coming off a 2014 season in which he contributed career-lows for yards (747) and yards per catch (15.7). Johnson, meanwhile, recently asked the Texans to trade or cut him. But at 33 with a base salary worth $21.5 million over the next two seasons, Johnson likely won’t receive much action from the Bears for a potential trade, given that he had just 936 yards receiving last season with three touchdowns.

So it’s more likely the Texans cut Johnson and take a $7.3 million hit in dead money, making the receiver a free agent. Once Johnson hits the market, he’ll command quite a bit less in salary than he’s currently due. But even at a much lower salary, it’s unlikely the Bears would be looking to replace Marshall with a 33-year-old receiver who appears to be on the decline.

So while options appear aplenty regarding potential replacements for Marshall, the reality is Chicago faces a difficult challenge in bringing in a receiver capable of matching his production.