The Chicago Bears paid a pretty penny to land Jay Cutler in the 2009 trade with the Denver Broncos. It appears all those draft picks, and Kyle Orton, were worth it, as Cutler has since proven to be a franchise quarterback. And at 28 years old, he's just now entering his prime.
Yet his talent is being wasted. The team has not invested in protecting him up front, allowing the most combined sacks in the league the past two seasons, while also surrounding him with mediocre talent at wide receiver.
Last year, Matt Forte led all Chicago players in receptions. His 52 catches were 15 more than both Johnny Knox and Roy Williams, who tied for the most catches (37) among the team's wideouts. When you consider Forte missed the final four games of the season with a sprained MCL, the lack of numbers from the receivers looks even worse.
QB Jay Cutler
Things were so bad at wideout, the club chose to keep an undrafted free agent, Dane Sanzenbacher, on the roster all season. To top it all off, Sanzenbacher actually led all receivers in touchdowns (3).
Chicago's wideouts consistently failed to create separation last season and could not win the one-on-one battles. As such, whenever an opposing team blitzed, Cutler often had no one to throw to, as all his receivers were blanketed in man coverage.
Williams is a long shot to return and as of now, it's unlikely Knox will be recovered fully from his back surgery to start training camp. In fact, some are questioning if he'll ever play again. Earl Bennett is solid as a possession receiver, yet Devin Hester is nothing more than a spot player and Sanzenbacher drops far too many passes.
For years, coach Lovie Smith has praised his wideouts, never acknowledging what is so obvious to the rest of us: this group stinks. If the team continues to roll out players that wouldn't even make the rosters of teams like the Giants, Saints, Packers and Patriots, the passing game cannot move forward. If the organization continues to surround Cutler with low-level talent at wideout, it will go down as one of the most egregious mistakes in the history of the franchise.
The best place for Chicago to address this problem is through free agency, as it takes most rookie receivers at least a couple of seasons to fully acclimate to the pro game. It's not a bad idea to get a young wideout, but if the team wants to win now, it needs to get a proven veteran playmaker. Here are the free agents receivers that could cure what ails this offense.
Mike Wallace, PIT (2011: 72 REC, 1,193 YDS, 8 TD)
Wallace is one of the fastest receivers in the game and can stretch opposing defenses like no other. He's a homerun threat on every play. Even with his strong arm, it's hard to imagine Cutler ever overthrowing Wallace. Unfortunately, the Steelers will likely do whatever it takes to keep him in Pittsburgh.
Wes Welker, NE (122 REC, 1,569 YDS, 9 TD)
Welker is one of the best wideouts in the league. At age 30, he still has two-to-three very good years left in him. Yet, like Wallace, the Patriots will go so far as placing the franchise tag on him to make sure he stays in New England.
WR Vincent Jackson
Dwayne Bowe, KC (81 REC, 1,159 YDS, 5 TD)
Bowe has surpassed the 1,000-yard receiving mark in three of his past four seasons. His numbers are even more impressive when you consider the hodgepodge of backup-level quarterbacks throwing those passes. He's a big target (6-2, 221) that excels in the red zone – he caught 15 touchdowns in 2010. New Bears GM Phil Emery is well aware of Bowe's value, having spent the last four seasons in Kansas City watching the receiver up close. A Cutler-to-Bowe combination could be deadly, similar to what the quarterback was able to accomplish with Brandon Marshall in Denver. This move makes a lot of sense.
Vincent Jackson, SD (60 REC, 1,106 YDS, 9 TD)
Jackson is a huge target (6-5, 230). He's athletic, has good speed and uses his body well to shield defenders. He has a history of injuries and inconsistency but when he's on his game, he's almost impossible to defend. He burned the Bears in Week 11 this season to the tune of seven catches for 165 yards and a TD. If Bowe is option 1A in Chicago, then Jackson is option 1B.
Marques Colston, NO (80 REC, 1,143 YDS, 8 TD)
Colston is another big-bodied wideout (6-4, 225). The former seventh-round pick has racked up 1,000 receiving yards or more in all but one of his six seasons in the NFL. He's a deep threat but can also work the short and intermediate areas. There are concerns that he's been just a product of the system in New Orleans but it's hard to argue with his athleticism and production.
Steve Johnson, BUF (76 REC, 1,004 YDS, 7 TD)
Johnson has all the physical tools to be an elite receiver in the league but he lacks maturity. His on-field antics are distracting and have compromised more than one chance at a Bills victory. He has great speed and excels at creating separation one-on-one, something the Bears desperately need, but his character concerns may be too much to overlook, especially considering the price tag he'll command.
Brandon Lloyd, STL (70 REC, 966 YDS, 5 TD)
The 31-year-old revived a once-fledgling career after leaving the Bears in 2008. He was one of the top receivers in the league in 2010, catching 77 balls for 1,448 yards and 11 TDs. Lloyd said he'll only play for Josh McDaniels, who will be the offensive coordinator in New England next year, so don't expect him back in Chicago.
DeSean Jackson, PHI (58 REC, 961 YDS, 4 TD)
If you're looking for a one-dimensional, overpriced, pouty NFL receiver, then Jackson is your guy. He's a burner that can beat defenses deep but don't expect him to do anything more. His arms are made of rubber. There are better options out there.
WR Pierre Garcon
Mario Manningham, NYG (39 REC, 523 YDS, 4 TD)
Manningham is a mid-tier receiver that is the third option in New York behind Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. He doesn't have great speed, runs sloppy routes and drops too many passes. He wouldn't significantly upgrade Chicago's passing attack. Move on.
Pierre Garcon, IND (70 REC, 947 YDS, 6 TD)
Garcon has great speed but suspect hands. He can stretch opposing defenses but isn't as effective on intermediate routes. If the price is right, Garcon would be the best deep threat on the Bears' roster, yet it's likely he command more money than he's actually worth.
Laurent Robinson, DAL (54 REC, 858 YDS, 11 TD)
Robinson has dealt with numerous injuries throughout his five-year career. He stayed healthy last year and had a breakout campaign. If he can stay healthy, he could be a highly productive receiver. The Cowboys will try hard to keep him but if he walks, he could be a solid, cheap addition to Chicago's roster.
Robert Meachem, NO
Braylan Edwards, SF
Danny Amendola, STL
Ted Ginn, SF
Eddie Royal, DEN
Jerome Simpson, CIN
Plaxico Burress, NYJ
Harry Douglas, ATL
Jerricho Cotchery, PIT
Early Doucet, ARI
Legedu Naanee, CAR
Follow me on Twitter: @BearReport
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.