As his first major decision in the big chair, Chicago Bears GM Phil Emery sent two third round draft picks to the Miami Dolphins. In return, he acquired a beleaguered, unwanted receiver already facing potential suspension for allegedly punching a woman in a New York nightclub. Rarely do NFL teams trade away premier receivers entering their prime, and when it happens, it's usually because the athlete causes too many headaches or isn't the player outsiders believe him to be. Both rationales seemed to apply to Marshall, who averaged fewer yards and receptions in Miami than during his three years starting for the Broncos.
But any criticism the Bears caught for the trade quickly dissipated once Marshall stepped on the field. Now reunited with former Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler, Marshall responded with his best season as a pro, catching over 100 balls for the first time since his Denver days and totaling more than 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns. Equally as importantly, Marshall also avoided any legal trouble or league suspension.
Marshall is the first elite wide receiver to play for Chicago since pre-ACL tear Marcus Robinson. In fact, the Bears hadn't had a mere 1,000 yard receiver since Marty Booker's 2002 season, and it wasn't for a lack of trying. Under former GM Jerry Angelo, Chicago drafted 14 wide receivers headlined by David Terrell, Bernard Berrian, and Devin Hester, and signed a lucrative contract with Muhsin Muhammad. While not all disasters, none of Angelo's moves panned out as hoped, leading his successor to pick up the pieces. It's within this context that Marshall's 2012 campaign is made all the more impressive.
The question before us now is how will Marshall follow up last season's performance?
To begin, let's consider the other weapons in the Bears' passing game. Returning from last season are Alshon Jeffery and Earl Bennett as well as primary return men Eric Weems and the aforementioned Hester. The Bears have also added TE Martellus Bennett, and Devin Aromashodu returns after a two-year sojourn in Minnesota. Jeffery, a second-round investment, performed well his rookie season prior to a series of injuries which rendered him ineffective. Those circumstances are unlikely to repeat in 2013, and with a full a year of NFL experience under his belt, Jeffery projects to take a leap this year. Running counter is Earl Bennett, whose production has declined every year since 2009. With Jeffery and others standing to take on a larger workload, Bennett's downward trend is unlikely to change.
Neither of the Bears' return men stand to have large roles in the passing game. Eric Weems was barely a contributor in the passing game in 2012 and probably won't become one this season given the Bears' other options. As for Hester, the team announced in April that he will no longer work with the wide receivers. The decision will allow Hester to focus on his returns, assuming of course he doesn't lose his roster spot.
Finally, there are the new additions. Martellus Bennett had a big year in his first and only season with the Giants, catching 55 balls for 626 yards and five touchdowns. Along with Jeffery, Martellus Bennett is the biggest threat to take away opportunities from Marshall. Aromashodu, on the other hand, hasn't been much of a factor wherever he's been. If he's stealing passes away from anyone, it's Earl Bennett.
The other factor in projecting Marshall's 2013, and it's a big one, is the presence of a new coaching staff. Emery hired former NFL offensive coordinator and CFL Grey Cup champion Marc Trestman to resurrect Chicago's moribund offense. As his last stint in the league was in 2002, it's difficult to take anything away from his NFL track record. If anything, it's likely Chicago's offense will more heavily weight the passing game, which of course means more opportunities for Marshall.
And it's not as though Marshall lacked chances with Chicago last year. The Bears targeted him a league-high 194 times. That's exactly 40% of all of Chicago's passes last year and easily the highest for a single player in the NFL that season. The Bears have to find a way to take some weight off Marshall's shoulders in 2013, and it's likely that they will. Jeffery is ready for a larger workload and the Bears wouldn't sign Martellus Bennett if not to prominently feature him in the passing game. At least one of those players should be targeted at or near 100 times, which would be over double what last year's number two receiver saw.
However, the impact of the added distribution is more likely to affect Marshall's catch-percentage rather than his receptions, as Marshall caught only 60.8% of passes thrown his way. While his targets will drop, he'll still be one of the most targeted receivers in the league. Consequently, he'll also catch 100+ balls again in 2013. Even if his catch-percentage holds, Marshall should still be in for a 1,250 yard season barring injury. His ceiling probably slips to "only" 1,400 yards. I'll split the difference and project 1,325 yards for Marshall on 105 catches. His scoring total is bit cloudier. Touchdown receptions are the most difficult metric to project in football, and rarely does any receiver (even elite ones) catch double digit touchdowns in back-to-back seasons. Because Marshall has only accomplished that twice, and because Martellus Bennett will also be targeted in the red zone, Marshall may only catch 7 touchdowns this year. But in all, Marshall stands to have another stellar performance in 2013.
Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Co. He has previously written for Lombardi Ave, College Hoops Net, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is also currently a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter: @JBHirschhorn