Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore had been covering Justin Jefferson one-on-one for most of Sunday’s game at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Jefferson, the Vikings’ star receiver, begged head coach Kevin O’Connell to call a deep pass.
“I was telling KO the whole game: ‘We should throw it up and give me a chance to make a play,'” he said after the game.
With 1:37 to play, it was time.
Tied and with the ball at their own 33, the Vikings split Jefferson left. Quarterback Kirk Cousins caught the shotgun snap, took three steps and lofted a pass to Jefferson, who pulled away from Lattimore with the ball in the air. He caught it and was tripped up after a 39-yard gain.
The Saints ran three times and kicked a field goal with about 30 seconds left to take the lead for good, winning 28-25. Jefferson — who had been double- and triple-teamed at times this season — was the reason why.
The Bears are firmly in the latter category. No one has spent less on receivers this year than their $4.6 million.
It’s the Golden Age of wide receivers. The Bears are stuck in the Iron Age.And they won’t be able to buy their way out of it via free agency this offseason.
Bears quarterback Justin Fields’ performance thus far this season has been disturbing. He threw two touchdown passes in Week 1 and none since. His 58.7 passer rating ranks 32nd in a league with 32 teams. His 471 passing yards ranks No. 32, too — one spot behind the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo, who has started half as many games.
There are ample reasons to be concerned about whether Fields sees his open receivers quickly –and, when he does, whether he has the confidence to deliver the ball on time.
Darnell Mooney, the Bears’ nominal No. 1 receiver, has eight catches for 121 yards this year — stats eclipsed by Jefferson in Week 1 alone, and then again in Week 4. Mooney caught 94 yards worth of passes in Week 4, but that was no reflection of any great gains by the offense. No other Bears receiver caught a single ball.
Compare that to the Vikings’ operation with Jefferson, whose 147 receiving yards Sunday marked the 16th time in his 37-game career he’s reached triple digits. He’s just the third player to record that many in his first three seasons, trailing only Randy Moss and Odell Beckham.
This year, Jefferson ranks fifth in receptions (28), targets (42) and receiving yards per game (98.3). Only two NFL players who don’t play quarterback have a better than 100:1 chance to win MVP: Super Bowl MVP Cooper Kupp, the Rams starreceiver, and Jefferson.
There have never been so many good receivers — outside of Halas Hall.
“Just because I think the college game the way it is, I think everybody’s been playing receiver at a young age,” Bears head coach Matt Eberflus said. “They come up playing receiver. You’re sitting there and you’re a guy that’s in grade school and, ‘Hey, do you wanna play receiver or defensive back?’ Which one would you choose?
“But those guys are getting drafted high now. It’s a premium position, for sure. And it’s an impactful position.”
Thirteen receivers were drafted in the first two rounds this year, tying a record set in 2020. The Bears have drafted one receiver in the first two rounds in the past seven years: Anthony Miller, who flopped.
Deebo Samuel is the only above-average receiver the Bears have faced this season, and he’s more of a hybrid running back than a deep threat. Jefferson has averaged 33.3 yards per route on pass plays of 20 yards or more, the eighth-best mark in the league. Samuel averages half as much.
Jefferson will be eligible for a contract extension this offseason and could eclipse the $140 million given the Raiders’ Davante Adams in March. The wide receiver market exploded during the offseason –Adams, Kupp, Tyreek Hill, A.J. Brown, Stefon Diggs, Christian Kirk and D.K. Metcalf have all signed deals that put them in the top 12 richest contracts at the position.
That leaves few available impact receivers in a free-agent class that includes the Packers’ Allen Lazard, the Patriots’ Nelson Agholor and the Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Even though the Bears will have money — a league-high $105.3 million in salary cap space, per Spotrac –those are dangerous free-agent waters in which to swim. Just ask the Rams, who signed former Bears receiver Allen Robinson, a good-but-not-elite free agent, for $46.5 million this offseason.In four games this season, he has nine catches for 95 yards.
Drafting a receiver will be the Bears’ best path to find one, then — with one major caveat. If Fields doesn’t show steady improvement — and he hasn’t yet — the Bears might have to use their high first-round pick on a quarterback, not someone to catch his passes.
The Bears have another 13 games to figure that out, though. They’ll spend the first of them watching Jefferson — and wondering how they can get one of their own.