Why injured WR Markus Wheaton is one of Bears’ most critical players

Since the start of last season, Markus Wheaton has four catches.

Since training camp began this summer, he has had two surgeries — on his appendix on July 30, then on his broken left pinkie less than three weeks later. He has had one full padded practice since signing a two-year, $11 million deal with the Bears in March.

Still, it’s hard to find anyone at Halas Hall outside the quarterbacks room who’s more important to the Bears’ success going forward.

They’ll need warm bodies at wide receiver, yes. But they also desperately need someone who can stretch the field — starting Sunday at Tampa Bay, where Mike Glennon’s former coaches will undoubtedly dare him to beat the Buccaneers deep.

Bears receiver Markus Wheaton has yet to play this season. (AP)

Enter Wheaton, who, in 2015, ranked in the NFL’s top 25 with 17 yards per catch and 9.48 yards per target. The mere threat of him keeping a deep ball will keep defenses honest; the Bears have no one else at receiver who can say the same.

“You look at the plays that were installed and the plays that we installed during camp — we have a lot of stuff going down the field,” Wheaton said. “We didn’t see that, a lot of stuff down the field, last week, but I’m sure we’ll see it soon.”

That won’t be the case unless he plays. Wheaton has  progressed from last week, when he wore a club on his left hand in practice, but still has been limited in practice.

The Bears need him badly — and soon. They lost starting receivers Cam Meredith and Kevin White to injured reserve within a two-week span. On Sunday, they figure to rely on special-teams stalwarts Josh Bellamy and Deonte Thompson, slot receiver Kendall Wright and either waiver-wire pickup Tre McBride or recent practice squad promotion Tanner Gentry to catch passes.

“It’s by committee,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “It’s going to be . . . Mike trusting the progressions and going to the right spots. And making [sure], in the week and in the game plan moving forward, knowing, ‘Hey, this guy can do this’ or ‘This guy fits that,’ finding where each piece we design concepts to beat coverage fits.

“It’s an awesome challenge for the coaching staff and an awesome challenge for Mike Glennon as well.”

That’s one way to put it.

Another way is to say the Bears have one of the league’s least-feared receiving corps. Wheaton can’t change that all on his own, but the Bears gave him millions to be a difference-maker.

“Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get a ton of work with him because he had two unfortunate injuries,” Glennon said. “But we’ll see.”

The Bears are banking on getting the player who had 44 catches for 749 yards and five scores in 2015 for the Steelers — not the one who caught four passes for 51 yards in an injury-ravaged contract year last season.

When Wheaton hurt his shoulder last year, he assumed at first that it was a sprain that would cost him a week or two.

He wound up needing surgery for a torn labrum.

“I learned that last year,” he said. “No matter what type of injury it is, what type of situation it is, all you can do is take it one step at a time.”

Going through last season’s struggles informed his approach to injuries in Chicago — but it didn’t make them easier.

“I don’t think I’ve had less of a hard time dealing with it,” he said. “I think I’m doing better getting over it.”

He’ll be truly over it if he plays Sunday.

“Hopefully,” he said. “Hopefully.”

Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley.

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com

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