Word came out recently that Chicago Bears wide receiver Johnny Knox will start the 2012 season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list while he recovers from spine surgery. He'll miss at least the first six games of the campaign and could be out for the whole year.
As such, the Bears need to move forward assuming Knox will not be available to the team in 2012. If he does play, then all the better, but the severity of his back injury should have Chicago's front office and coaches considering alternate long-term options at wideout.
Knox provides the vertical threat this offense needs to keep opposing defenses from stacking the box. His deep speed would not have allowed secondaries to consistently roll coverage over the top toward Brandon Marshall. If the Bears can't pair Marshall with a speed receiver on the opposite side of the field, he'll be far less effective.
WR Devin Hester
Warren Little/US Presswire
Earl Bennett is a quality possession receiver but he doesn't have the pace to blow the top off defenses. He's better suited out of the slot.
The obvious move is to promote Devin Hester to flanker. Both coordinator Mike Tice and quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates have talked this offseason about getting Hester more involved in the offense. At this point, they may have no other choice.
The problem is that Hester, while immensely talented, has never been able to fully grasp all that's necessary to be a starting wideout. He doesn't read coverage well, his route running is sloppy and his hands are suspect. Realistically, he's a part-time slot receiver with more value as a returner.
To hope that Tice, a first-time offensive coordinator, can somehow turn Hester into an every down receiver seems overly optimistic.
Hester can run by most defensive backs in this league, yet he's never demonstrated an ability to consistently track and adjust to the deep ball. And even if he does get under the pass in stride, the odds of him catching it are 50/50.
Recently signed Eric Weems is another option to replace Knox. He doesn't have blazing speed but he's fast enough to slip downfield if defenses forget about him.
Yet Weems is not an experienced pass catcher. During five seasons in Atlanta, he caught a total of 26 passes. It's naïve to assume a player with a single-season career high of 11 catches could come into a brand new offense and serve as the team's main deep threat. Weems is better served on special teams.
Chicago could turn to free agency but a lack of options and available cap space make that unlikely.
Jerricho Cotchery is the best pass catcher on the open market. He would bring a much-needed veteran presence to the receiving corps. Yet at 30 years old, his days of blowing by cornerbacks are far behind him.
The draft is also a place to look for a potential deep threat.
WR Stephen Hill
Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill is extremely raw and won't be an every down receiver for at least a few seasons in the NFL. But his blend of size (6-4, 215) and speed (4.36 40-yard dash at the combine) will make him an instant downfield threat. He needs a lot of work on his route running and coverage recognition, but no one needs to teach him how to blaze straight down the turf.
Hill will likely be available in the first round when the Bears pick at 19th overall. The same can't be said for Notre Dame receiver Michael Floyd (6-3, 220). Floyd ran a 4.47 at the combine and is one of the best all-around receivers in this class. Despite the acquisition of Marshall, the Bears should still give Floyd plenty of consideration should he drop to them. The combination of those two big bodies catching passes from Jay Cutler would be deadly.
Yet the best first-round receiving option to replace Knox is Baylor's Kendall Wright. On film, Wright (5-10, 196) always looks like the fastest player on the field. He gets to full speed in just a few steps and tracks the deep ball well. His after-the-catch ability is top tier. He's just as much a threat on underneath routes as he is down the field.
He ran a 4.61 at the combine, much slower than most expected, which had some questioning his status as a first-round talent. At his pro day though, he ran in the low 4.4s, erasing doubts about his speed.
Wright is NFL ready and, as a rookie, could easily replace Knox's 37 catches from last season.
Other speed options in the draft:
-Chris Givens (5-11, 198), Wake Forest, 4.41 40-yard dash, projected 2nd round pick
-Greg Childs (6-3, 219), 4.40, Arkansas, 3rd
-T.Y. Hilton (5-10, 183), Florida International, 4.37, 4th
-Jarius Wright (5-10, 182), Arkansas, 4.42, 4th-5th
-A.J. Jenkins (6-0, 190), Illinois, 4.39, 4th-5th
-Tommy Streeter (6-5, 219), Miami, 4.40, 4th-5th
-T.J. Graham (5-11, 188), North Carolina State, 4.41, 5th-6th
-Chris Owusu (6-0, 196), Stanford, 4.36, 7th
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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.