Ready for Level II

Last year, it was Israel Idonije. This year, a few players look ready to raise their games to the next level. And one Bear looks like to have Pro-Bowl caliber potential, possibly as soon as 2011.

At age 30, Chicago Bears defensive lineman Israel Idonije finally had his breakout season in 2010. After six years performing first as a special teams player, then as a rotational player at defensive tackle, Idonije finally found a home at left end. With Julius Peppers commanding much of the attention on the opposite side of the line, Idonije ratcheted up his game. He had 49 combined tackles – nearly doubling his previous season-high total. He also earned 8.0 sacks – the same number he collected in the six previous years total – while also forcing three fumbles.

With another year under his belt at left end, Bears coaches are confident Idonije will continue to be a force on the outside.

Heading into the 2011 season, a few players on Chicago's roster look primed to make a jump in production similar to that of Idonije. The most likely candidates are defensive tackle Henry Melton, linebacker Nick Roach and wide receiver Earl Bennett. As was the case with Idonije, opportunity is the main factor when predicting the breakout potential of any player.

With Melton, the departure of Tommie Harris has opened the door for him to claim the starting under tackle spot. He has put on needed weight this offseason. Combine that new frame with his natural quickness off the ball, and then add the substantial increase in reps he'll see this year, and it's easy to see why Melton could claim the starting gig and never look back.

Roach is currently a free agent but all signs point toward him re-signing with the team. Pisa Tinoisamoa is also a free agent but is four years older than Roach and just had his third right knee surgery. He'll most likely sign elsewhere. Besides Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, the team has no linebackers under contract. If Roach re-ups with the Bears, he'll be the strong-side starter from Day 1. When given the opportunity, he's played very well. Playing full time could allow him to turn the corner.


WR Earl Bennett
Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire

Yet the player with the most breakout potential is Bennett. He and Jay Cutler were former teammates at Vanderbilt. During their one season together, Bennett's freshman year, he caught 79 passes for 876 yards and 9 touchdowns. For that performance he was named first-team All SEC by the coaches.

He went on to play just two more seasons for the Commodores, ending his collegiate career as the SEC's all-time leader in receptions (236) and was the first SEC player to ever record 75 receptions in three different seasons.

Chicago selected Bennett in the third round of the 2008 draft but his transition to the pros was slow. He didn't catch any passes his rookie season yet came on strong in 2009, his second year in then-coordinator Ron Turner's offense, starting 15 games and amassing 54 receptions for 717 yards.

Yet when Mike Martz took over the offense in 2010, Bennett was immediately overlooked. He didn't become the starter until late in the season, ending the campaign with just 46 catches for 561 yards – a clear step backward.

Mart recently admitted his mistake in not utilizing Bennett earlier in the season.

"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."

Pro Football Focus recently published analysis of wide receiver drops in 2010. Bennett was one of only two qualifying players to have caught every single catchable pass thrown his way last season. Unless he shows up to training camp overweight and under-motivated, he'll be starting opposite Johnny Knox once the season begins.

As such he'll have an outstanding opportunity to take his game to the next level. He's a solid route runner who excels on the underneath routes. In Martz's second year at the helm, the entire offense should take another step, and it's likely Bennett will make the biggest leap of them all.

"My biggest thing is I am ready to get back to football," Bennett said Friday on WSCR-670 AM. "I have been down in Pensacola, Fla., training ever since the season has been over. … Hopefully, they get something resolved pretty quickly."

In preparing for the season, Bennett has been practicing with the rest of the offensive skill position players.

"We meet about four days a week," he said. "We go through plays, route running, coverages, just making sure we remain crisp on our routes.

"We have some new stuff in. We have a lot old stuff. Some of the stuff we have, if you would see it, it's unreal. We have a lot of stuff to go off right now."


WR Earl Bennett
Mark Serota/Getty

Bennett is so confident in his abilities that he has taken offense to all the talk of the Bears signing a big-name free agent pass catcher.

"I mean, for the past three years I've been hearing that, at least, 30 receivers that have been in the free agent market, was supposed to come here or the Bears are looking at these guys," he said. "But, I mean, the guys in the front office must see something in us and we must be doing a pretty good job because, you know, they never go after these guys.

"It's very insulting. Because it seems as if, you know, we're not getting the job done, which is definitely not the case on our opinion."

If used as one of the main focal points of the offense, which looks to be highly likely, Bennett could see a substantial jump in production. It's not crazy to think he could double his number totals from last season. That would be a total of 92 catches for 1,122 yards and 6 touchdowns – numbers that could earn him a trip to Hawaii.

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