Bears 2011 Year in Review: Wide Receiver

We take an in-depth look at how Chicago's wide receivers performed last season and discuss what changes, if any, need to be made at the position going forward into 2012 and beyond.

THE PLAYERS

Johnny Knox (37 REC, 69 TAR, 727 YDS, 2 TD)
Knox led all Bears receivers in receptions, targets and yardage, despite missing the last two games with a back injury. His 19.6 yards per catch was second highest in the NFL, so as a deep threat, he did his job very well. Yet the Bears, and specifically Caleb Hanie, tried to employ Knox as the team's No. 1. He showed this year that, beyond his straight-line speed, he doesn't offer much else. His footwork has always been lacking, which often has him slipping and sliding all over Soldier Field's loose sod. Had he not fallen down on his slant route, leading to an easy interception by San Diego's Antoine Cason, Jay Cutler wouldn't have gotten hurt and the Bears would have made the playoffs.

Roy Williams (37 REC, 63 TAR, 507 YDS, 2 TD)
Williams was brought in to be the tall, downfield receiver Chicago has been lacking since Curtis Conway. Instead, he was nothing more than a bit player with very poor hands. He tied for the team lead in drops (7) according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). Williams was slow and was horrible in jump-ball situations. PFF stats show that five passes thrown to him were intercepted last year, by far the most on the team. Yet for all he did wrong, he still tied for the team-lead in receptions among receivers – which says a lot about the serious lack of talent in Chicago's receiving corps.


WR Earl Bennett
Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire

Earl Bennett (24 REC, 43 TAR, 381 YDS, 1 TD)
Bennett was poised to have a breakout season, his fourth in the league. Then a chest injury suffered in Week 2 held him out of five games. In the three games following his return, Cutler found him 14 times for 251 yards and a touchdown. Yet once Cutler went down, Bears quarterbacks inexplicably stopped throwing to Bennett. In the six games with Cutler out, Bennett caught just seven total passes. It was, by far, the biggest waste of talent on the team. When Bennett was being used properly, he showed great route running and outstanding hands, dropping just one pass on the year. He was dangerous after the catch as well, leading all Bears receivers in forced missed tackles (5). Unfortunately for Chicago's offense, Hanie and Josh McCown refused to throw it to the team's best receiver.

Devin Hester (26 REC, 56 TAR, 369 YDS, 1 TD)
Hester had a miserable season as a wideout. He ran sloppy routes, did not adjust to balls in the air and dropped a few crucial passes. Hester, for all his open-field ability, forced just one missed tackle and his 49.1 catch percentage was the worst of any receiver on the team, according to PFF. Ankle and leg injuries slowed him late in the season, making him almost invisible on offense – he caught just four passes over the final eight games. His catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns were all his worst season totals of the past four years. Hester has shown flashes of potential at times but after his fifth season at the position, it's clear he'll never be a quality pass catcher.

Dane Sanzenbacher (27 REC, 54 TAR, 276 YDS, 3 TD)
Sanzenbacher was the star of training camp and made the final 53-man roster as an undrafted free agent. When Bennett missed five games, Sanzenbacher filled his slot role and developed good chemistry with Cutler, particularly near the end zone. He led all Chicago receivers in touchdowns. He's a shifty player who is quick in and out of his breaks. He does his best work on underneath routes. Yet his hands are severely lacking. Sanzenbacher tied for the team lead in drops (7) with Williams, despite playing more than 200 fewer snaps than Williams.

Sam Hurd (8 REC, 16 TAR, 109 YDS, 0 TD)
Even before his drug arrest, Hurd was nothing more than a special teams player.

OVERALL

This group was a mess for most of the season. Not a single player could consistently create separation in one-on-one matchups. They could define their roles within the offense, in which none looked comfortable. The drops were maddening and seemed to come at the biggest points in the game.

GRADE: C-

LOOKING FORWARD

Bennett signed a four-year extension this year, right about the time Chicago's quarterbacks started ignoring him. He's signed through 2015. Knox is signed through 2012 and Hester through 2013. It's extremely doubtful the Bears will re-sign Williams. Sanzenbacher will likely get another invite to training camp but it doesn't appear he's a long-term option.

Coordinator Mike Tice needs to end the Hester experiment. There's no harm in using him occasionally but he's proved over the past five years he cannot be counted on as a consistently productive pass catcher.


WR Devin Hester
Warren Little/Getty

Knox and Bennett have defined roles and are good at what they do. Both have value going forward. Yet Chicago's passing attack needs some playmakers. It needs guys who beat cornerbacks one-on-one; guys that can go up and make the tough catch in traffic; guys who can win jump-ball situations. One of former GM Jerry Angelo's biggest mistakes was trading for a franchise quarterback and surrounding him with mediocre receivers. This is a position that needs attention both in the draft and in free agency.

With the 19th pick in the draft, the Bears could potentially land Notre Dame receiver Michael Floyd, a big wideout with good hands and outstanding jump-ball ability. Athletically, he's on par with some of the best receivers in the country. He's had some well-documented off-the-field issues related to alcohol, so there's a risk there, but on the field, he has all the tools necessary to be the Bears' big-play wideout. If Floyd is gone at 19, or if the Bears choose to pass on him, they should at least use one of their four picks in the first three rounds on a quality young pass catcher.

In free agency there are a number of potential impact players that will be unrestricted this offseason. A few good candidates: Vincent Jackson, Marques Colston, Dwayne Bowe, Laurent Robinson, Robert Meachem, Stevie Johnson and Pierre Garcon. Also, Eddie Royal, who caught 91 balls paired with Cutler in 2008, will be available, as will Wes Welker. Either would make a great addition out of the slot.

Whatever route the Bears choose to take, the team cannot afford to ignore this position any longer. Angelo could not find the receivers this offense needed, neither through free agency nor the draft. Whoever ends up being the team's new GM, he must be aggressive in upgrading this position. If he can secure two impact players, Cutler may finally be able to reach his potential.

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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.

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