Heading into the 2016 season all the talk by the media and fans revolved around how improved the Chicago Bears’ passing game would be with Alshon Jeffery, returning under the franchise tag and playing for a new contract, and Kevin White, healthy and ready to contribute like a first round draft choice should. So far, that narrative has seen limited success at best.
Jeffery has been the Bears most productive receiver as far as total yardage but has been plagued by knee, ankle and now a hamstring injury that has left him questionable for Week 5.
Kevin White has spent the first quarter of the season going to school on how to be an NFL receiver and against the Detroit Lions, appeared to be stepping up in his development. That was before he limped off the field with what turned out to be a high-ankle sprain and fractured fibula which has likely ended his sophomore season early.
Where the Bears have received production in the passing game has been from someone who was supposed to be an important part of the team’s equation last season but was hindered by injuries. This season, Eddie Royal has been a presence on the field. He’s the go-to receiver when Jay Cutler and Brian Hoyer need yardage, and that’s why he’s the unsung MVP of this receiver group so far in 2016.
There’s no doubt that Royal benefits from lining up opposite Jeffery. He’s the identified threat on the Bears’ offense and consistently draws double-team coverage, but there’s more that has been contributing to Royal’s success. He’s a veteran slot receiver who runs precise routes and Cutler or Hoyer always know he’ll be where they expect him to be when they release the ball.
Royal also has an instinct for finding open space and catches nearly everything thrown his direction. He’s been targeted 22 times in the Bears’ first four games and caught 18 for 241 yards and two touchdowns. On the team, he’s second to Jeffery with 13.4 yards per reception and his 81.8 catch percentage is second in the NFL among wide receivers with at least 10 targets.
Royal has also been one of the top punt returners in the NFL this season. He wasn’t used as a return man by the Bears during the preseason but neither of those two players made enough impact to even be considered for the final roster.
Royal was the man tabbed for the job in Week 1, and he’s been doing an exceptional job at it through four games. He’s tied with four others for second in the league for most returns with 10 and he’s sixth with a 13.9 yard-per-return average.
The trouble with Royal throughout his career is finding enough super glue and duct tape to keep him in one piece and on the field for an extended stretch of games.
In 2008, Royal’s rookie season, he started and played in 15 games and had 91 catches, currently tied for second most all-time for a first-year receiver. Only twice in his career has he played a complete 16 game schedule, in 2010 for the Denver Broncos and 2014 for the San Diego Chargers.
Just as it looked as if nothing could stop Royal in 2016, he’s been listed on the injury report for Week 5 against the Indianapolis Colts. Still, with the rest of the Bears’ roster supermodel thin due to injuries, expect Royal to be on the field and ready to contribute. Also, expect him to be the man Brian Hoyer looks for when he needs to gain important yards.