Thomas signing reveals much

Former N.Y. Giants wide receiver Devin Thomas signed a one-year deal with the Bears yesterday. The move gives us a better idea of how the team plans to replace Johnny Knox.

The Chicago Bears announced yesterday evening that the team has agreed to terms on a one-year deal with wide receiver Devin Thomas.

A former second-round draft pick from Michigan State, Thomas has never developed into a reliable pass catcher at the pro level. In four seasons in the NFL, he has caught just 43 total passes for 482 yards and three touchdowns.

He played for the New York Giants last season. Active for all 16 games, Thomas caught just three passes.

The idea that Thomas somehow provides depth to the receiving corps seems a bit optimistic. His value is on special teams.

Last year, Thomas returned 25 kickoffs for 607 yards. His 24.3-yard kickoff return average was better than Devin Hester's 21.9-yard average last season. Thomas is also a quality coverage player. He recovered both of the fumbles by 49ers return man Kyle Williams in last year's NFC Championship game.

In essence, Thomas will replace Sam Hurd, who was also a solid special teams player. Thomas has good size (6-2, 221) but he's never proven himself to be a reliable receiver at the NFL level. The Bears will likely use him in some four-receiver sets but don't count on him catching 70 passes next season.


WR Devin Thomas
Jim O'Connor/US Presswire

Thomas is not replacing Johnny Knox, who could miss the entire 2012 campaign while he recovers from spinal surgery.

Along with Eric Weems and Blake Costanzo, Thomas is the third player the Bears have signed this offseason to boost special teams. The team always invests in the game's third phase, so this isn't all that surprising.

Yet this does show us what Chicago's plans are in attempting to replace Knox.

Currently, the club's wide receivers are Brandon Marshall, Earl Bennett, Devin Hester, Dane Sanzenbacher, Max Komar, Weems and Thomas.

Marshall will start at the Y spot and Bennett will serve as the Z receiver in the slot. With Knox out, the team must decide who will take over the X position, or the speed receiver spot.

Sanzenbacher and Komar do not have the speed to fit that role, but Hester does.

Lovie Smith spoke yesterday about balancing Hester's dual role as both a return man and pass catcher.

"We've been trying to get this happy medium, this perfect play time in how we're going to use Devin," Smith said at the NFL meetings. "We're going to continue to look for ways to get a better plan for how we use Devin Hester. That process has started again. He will be a part of our offense. He'll be our punt returner. But I think you can be our punt returner and have a role on the offense."

It's safe to assume the team is planning on using Hester as the full-time X next year.

Both Weems and Thomas are established return men. If Chicago's coaches want to limit Hester as a punt returner and increase his snaps on offense, they now have that option. And it appears they are ready to exercise that option.

Hester is still the most explosive returner in the league, a player that can change the outcome of a game with just one punt return. But it appears the Bears may be willing to sacrifice his abilities on special teams so as to utilize his speed on offense.

If the team chooses to go this route, it will be a highly questionable maneuver. The Bears have been trying to mold Hester, who played mostly defense in college, into a wide receiver since Ron Turner was the offensive coordinator. Yet he's never been able to fully grasp what it takes to be a starting wideout in this league. He's been plagued by inconsistent hands, sloppy route running and an inability to read coverage.

Since 2007, the Bears have insisted Hester is a No. 1 receiver, despite his yearly lack of production. Yet it appears they are willing to give it one more go around.

That is, unless the team can find an NFL-ready X receiver in this year's draft.

Chicago has brought in three new receivers this offseason, so obviously GM Phil Emery sees it as a position of true need – something former GM Jerry Angelo could not fully grasp. Yet the club could still be in the market for an early round wideout with speed, especially if they feel the player can contribute right away.

If they fail to land such a player in next month's draft, get ready for a full season of Hester as the full-time split end.

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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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