Chicago Bears: A Sneaky Fantasy Football Godsend?

Your thoughts on Chicago Bears skill position players and what they might do for your 2013 fake football squad can probably be summed up in a single word, or grunt, or barely audible noise: Meh.

Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall
Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium Mark J Rebilas USA TODAY Sports

This meh-ness excludes wide receiver Brandon Marshall, of course, as he finished behind only Calvin Johnson among fantasy pass catchers in 2012. But that eternal fantasy tease, Jay Cutler, his fine-but-not-great backfield mate Matt Forte, the big guy on the outside, Alshon Jeffery, and newly acquired tight end Martellus Bennett don’t inspire song, or poetry, or much of anything else in fantasy circles.

Maybe they should.

Bears head coach Marc Trestman’s brand of the West Coast offense should bring at least a modicum of joy to your often-miserable fantasy football life. Looking back at fantasy production from Trestman offenses and talking with analysts familiar with his scheming during his days in the Canadian Football League should give us good reason to value Cutler, Forte, Jeffery, and Marshall higher than our league mates.

Much More than Marshall

Perhaps the most encouraging takeaway from an examination of Trestman’s 2002 Oakland Raiders offense is that his West Coast system created three viable receivers and a point per reception (PPR) running back juggernaut that we’ll address next.

Jerry Rice led the team with 92 receptions, followed by Tim Brown (81) and Jerry Porter (51). That’s a whole bunch of grabs to go around, marking a stark difference between the 2012 and 2013 versions of the Bears’ receivers.

Marshall gobbled up 118 catches last season, with Cutler rarely taking his eyes off his favorite target, no matter the coverage. Who was next in wide receiver receptions, you ask? That would be Earl Bennett, he of the colorful cleats, who caught 29 passes. Lions receiver Nate Burleson, who missed all but six games last season, was two receptions behind Bennett. Jeffrey was third on the team with 24 catches.

Trestman’s offense relies on short throws — lots of them — sometimes from bunch formations that get a receiver open near the middle of the field. The pure volume of throws in Trestman’s scheme has been enough to support three viable fantasy receivers. The direct opposite could’ve been said about the Bears offense of the past few seasons.

Read more about Marc Trestman’s fantasy impact…
Will Marc Trestman Make Jay Cutler Fantasy Relevant Again?

Trestman, during his time in the states and north of the border, used trips formation quite a bit, lining up three wide receivers to the same side of the field in hopes of at least one of those pass catchers drawing man coverage that, presumably, the receiver can beat more times than not. Trestman’s trips formation has gashed zone coverage schemes, especially during his days in Oakland. We’ve seen the terrible things Marshall does to single coverage. If a defense keys on Marshall, Jeffery, Bennett or another of the Chicago receivers would benefit from single coverage.

I asked Andrew Bucholtz, an authority on all things Canadian football and editor of 55-Yard Line, how Trestman’s offensive variations might translate to the NFL almost a decade after he last coached in the league.

“One of the most crucial things about Trestman’s offence I’ve noticed from his CFL and NFL stints is he wants to throw the ball a lot and do so efficiently,” Bucholtz said. “His teams are going to air the ball out, and most of that’s going to come on short, high-percentage passes, but unlike a straight West Coast scheme, he’s also using that to clear the way for the deep ball.”

This bodes well, I think, not only for Marshall and Jeffrey, but also for the newly acquired Bennett, who, at 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds, is a giant target on those high-percentage throws between the hash marks.

Bennett, depending on how often he’s asked to use his elite blocking skills to keep Cutler alive and upright, is going to be the Bears’ second or third option in the pass game. Either way, I think Trestman’s system gives him a real shot to put up top-12 tight end fantasy numbers.

“Trestman’s teams have usually walked a balance between feeding a top receiver and spreading the ball around,” Bucholtz said. “Receivers who may really benefit are possession-oriented slot guys or tight ends who can run short crosses or outs; that’s been a lot of Trestman’s offensive playbook in the CFL, and if you can make those throws efficiently (which there’s every reason to believe Cutler can), they can help you march down the field. That should clear the way for deeper balls to Marshall.”

Bill Walsh, the unquestioned deity of the West Coast offense, sought tight ends who were “bigger, stronger and naturally … not going to be as quick and agile as the other type of tight end.” Walsh added, “So naturally you then fashion your passing game with him in the vicinity of linebackers. With that in mind, he must have soft hands.”

Bennett was made for this role, and we can assume Trestman knows it.

A Love Letter to Matt Forte 

Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte
Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte runs the ball during the first quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field Tim Fuller USA TODAY Sports

Actually, there was a guy just behind Rice’s team-leading 92 grabs: running back Charlie Garner, who racked up an incredible 91 catches from quarterback Rich Gannon. Garner posted seven or more grabs in an astounding six games that season.

For some perspective on Garner’s pass-catching prowess in Trestman’s pass-happy system, consider that Darren Sproles led all running backs last season with 75 catches. Ray Rice was second with 61.

Trestman, especially during that 2002 season in Oakland, embraced the “pass as run” concept as much as any coordinator in recent memory. Trestman was masterful at using formations to dare the defense to bring more defenders to the line of scrimmage.

Trestman would have receivers run go routes to clear out the cornerbacks, while the third receiver or tight end would run a route toward the middle of the field, keeping the linebackers occupied. This would create plentiful space near the line, Garner would sneak out of the backfield, and Gannon would dump the ball to him in the flat. This rarely led to huge plays, but this “pass as run” approach wasn’t meant to bust 70-yard scores. It was meant to replace the run game, so six and eight-yard gains more than sufficed.

A properly executed West Coast scheme – and Trestman’s version, in particular – puts the football in the running back’s hands at the line of scrimmage with a five-yard cushion between him and the nearest defender, usually a linebacker.

“It’s a pass-focused offence, but that can still lead to plenty of involvement for the running back,” Bucholtz said, adding that Forte’s skillset fits well in Trestman’s offense. “And there’s obviously more opportunity to run in a four-down league than a three-down one.” (The CFL has three downs. And our Canadian friends spell offense with a “c.” You can’t say you didn’t learn anything today.)

The pass as an extension of – and sometimes, a replacement for – the run game is plenty of reason to rank Forte as a top-6 running back in PPR leagues, I think. Even in standard scoring leagues, Forte, last year’s 13th highest scoring fantasy back, should be a fairly safe top-10 runner.

Trestman’s selection of Aaron Kromer as offensive coordinator could — and should — be seen as a boon for Forte’s pass-catching prospects. Kromer worked with Trestman (and Garner) in Oakland and Sproles during his stint with the Saints. Kromer is adept at getting the ball to elusive runners in space, and as fantasy owners, that’s really all we can hope for.

Forte has been the subject of Trestman’s film study more often than any player outside Cutler, the coach said in a March 22 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. Trestman went so far as comparing his new running back to his old one, Garner.

“He was on the line of scrimmage, he was running out of the backfield [and] he is great in space. He has a skill set that goes full spectrum of what you want out of a running back,” Trestman said of Forte. “He can run inside. He can run outside. He can catch the ball extremely well. I saw him as a very good route runner. I saw him in slants in 2010. I saw him run rail routes, sideline routes.

And more Trestman gushing: “He’s extremely versatile from what I’ve seen over the stretch of plays that I’ve watched. That’s something I know more about because I’ve watched so much tape on him to try to establish what we need to get done with him in training camp. He can do everything.”

Forte has averaged 53 receptions per year in his five NFL seasons, which includes six games missed due to various injuries in 2011 and 2012. Forte’s soft hands and subtle lateral agility with the ball in his hands makes him an undervalued PPR commodity today, as he’s sports a mid-second round average draft position. If Trestman’s system limits Forte’s carries in 2013, his Sprolesian role in the Chicago passing game should keep him afloat among elite fantasy backs.

I don’t think 80 receptions is out of the question for Forte over a healthy 16-game season, so even if (when?) Michael Bush vultures goal line scores once again in 2013, Forte will maintain more than enough value to warrant top-10 running back status.

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