Recently, there's been a lot of talk about Earl Bennett possibly developing into the Bears' No. 1 receiving option next season. Pro Football Focus (PFF) released numbers (analyzed in detail by Bear Report here) that show Bennett as one of the most sure-handed pass catchers in the game. The notion was exacerbated this week when Mike Martz spoke out regarding the team's planned use of the receiver going forward.
"We didn't throw it to him enough," Martz said on the team's official Web site. "That will be remedied. He will figure in a much larger role than he did last year. He came to us late. He was injured. I wasn't really sure where he was with all the stuff. But he established himself as a guy who needs to get a lot more balls than he did.
"He's extremely reliable. I know Jay [Cutler] feels comfortable with him in the slot doing some of those things. But he should be able to play outside for us as well."
WR Earl Bennett
Kevin C. Cox/Getty
Bennett was very effective out of the slot last year. According to PFF, he logged the 15th most slot snaps of any receiver in the league – 71.73 of his total snaps came from the inside. He was also top 15 in yards from the slot, receptions from the slot, targets from the slot, catch percentage from the slot and was sixth best in the NFL is slot yards per catch.
Martz believes Bennett can perform just as well from the split end position, yet it remains to be seen if he can make that transition. He's demonstrated he can help the team by lining up on the inside, which adds a level of risk in moving him outside.
Additionally, while Bennett reached the top fifteen in nearly every slot statistic provided by PFF, the one category he failed to meet those expectations was slot yards after the catch. This basically says that, while he has hands like glue, don't expect him to do much else once he secures the pigskin.
This can be taken as another warning sign against forcing Bennett into a No. 1 role. The top dog should be able to not only make the catch but also create plays. Bennett doesn't have elite size or speed, and doesn't shed tackles well, which indicates his best role is as a pure possession receiver.
Martz is correct, Bennett needs to see more passes thrown his way. Odds are if he can reach the ball, he'll catch it. Last year, he finished second among Chicago wideouts with 46 receptions for 561 yards. For him to truly fill the No.1 role, he'll need to double those numbers. It's not impossible to do, but that's a pretty hefty step up in production and not an increase that should necessarily be counted on from a fourth-year player.
Many feel that Johnny Knox – who is entering his third season, the one in which most NFL wide receivers take their biggest step forward – is a legitimate candidate to take over the head receiving role. He has the type of speed that makes him a big play threat on every down. He gained 960 yards through the air last year. If he continues his development, he has the possibility of becoming the first 1,000-yard receiver in Chicago since Marty Booker in 2002.
WR Johnny Knox
PFF released data on the top deep threats in the NFL in 2010. Not surprisingly, Knox was top 10 in receptions on deep passes, catch percentage on deep passes and yards on deep passes. Unfortunately, beyond being a burner who can stretch the defense, he doesn't offer much else. He's not a tough receiver over the middle and doesn't run outstanding routes.
If he can't create separation with his legs, he can't be effective, which is why, like Bennett, he's better suited as the deep-threat and not as the No. 1. Case in point: Knox was on the field for 371 more plays, yet caught just five more passes than Bennett. Additionally, the only category in which Knox failed to crack the top 10 in PFF's study of deep threats was touchdowns on deep passes. A true No. 1 needs to be able to put up points as well as rack up yards.
Considering the information in front of us, it makes more sense for the Bears to leave Knox and Bennett in their respective roles and sign a free-agent receiver who can take over the No. 1 role. Whether that receiver is actually out there is still up for debate. Most of the top available pass catchers have just as many question marks surrounding them. But if Chicago's front office finds a player that can compliment Knox and Bennett and allow those two to grow in the system, they shouldn't be hesitant to pull the trigger. A receiver with a fresh skill-set could help Cutler reach that next level.
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