The 2011 season was disappointing for the Chicago Bears and its fans. A team that looked like Super Bowl contenders 10 weeks into the campaign was derailed by injuries and ultimately knocked out of the playoffs.
New GM Phil Emery added a number of new pieces and filled some gaping holes. Yet if the club is going to reach its goal of reaching the Super Bowl, a number of players will need to step up and play to their potential.
Here are the three players most likely to rise to the occasion.
WR Earl Bennett
Bennett posted his best numbers as a receiver during 2009, his second season in the NFL, but since then his production has steadily declined. After catching 54 balls for 717 yards in 2009, he fell to 46 for 561 in 2010 and just 24 for 381 last year.
Injuries played a part in his low totals in 2011, yet so did the lack of other options in Chicago's passing game. After Johnny Knox was lost for the season, Bennett became the club's only true receiving threat. As such, he was double teamed constantly. He finished last year with just seven catches in the team's last six contests.
Yet Bennett still has great route running ability and the best hands on the team. It's the reason the Bears signed him to a two-year contract extension last year, in the midst of his worst season as a professional.
TE Kellen Davis
Kelley L. Cox/US Presswire
Bennett has been working primarily out of the slot so far this offseason and has received numerous looks from his old college teammate, Jay Cutler. With the attention Brandon Marshall will command out wide, opposing defenses won't be able to tag team Bennett, which should lead to a career year for the fifth-year wideout.
TE Kellen Davis
During last year's training camp, Davis was arguably the most impressive player in Chicago's offense. He showed good speed and solid hands, which, combined with his size (6-7, 270) had most believing he would be a force in the Bears' passing attack, especially in the red zone.
Unfortunately, former offensive coordinator Mike Martz, notorious for ignoring tight ends in the passing game, used Davis more as a blocker than a pass catcher. He spent the majority of his on-field time in 2011 getting run over by opposing defensive ends – although he did show improvement as a blocker late in the campaign.
Yet with Mike Tice now in charge of Chicago's offense, Davis is poised to be a major contributor in 2012. Tice has always used his tight ends liberally and, from what we've seen of the offense so far this offseason, he plans to make them a focal part of his offense. That means Davis will likely see triple the targets he saw in 2011, which means he should easily surpass his career bests of 18 catches, 206 yards and 5 TDs.
CB D.J. Moore
Moore doesn't receive the same level of publicity as his defensive teammates but his per-play production is nearly unmatched amongst the group. As the team's nickelback, on the field during pass downs only, his snaps are limited, yet that didn't stop him from leading the team in interceptions (4) last season.
As a slot corner, Moore has shown very good ability in man coverage and fully understands his role in Chicago's zone schemes. Additionally, he's been highly effective as a blitzer the past two seasons.
Coach Lovie Smith said he would be open to sliding Moore outside in the near future. The 25-year-old is in a contract year and I believe he'll show himself to be the best playmaking corner on the club this season, which will ultimately lead to his ascension to starter status next year.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of 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.