The Chicago Bears' wide receiver corps last season was one of the worst in the league. It was so bad that Matt Forte, a running back, led the club in catches (52), which was 15 more than the club's top wideout, despite Forte missing the final four contests with a knee injury.
As such, new GM Phil Emery made it a priority to upgrade the team's pass catching group. He made the biggest trade of the offseason, sending two third-round picks to the Miami Dolphins for Brandon Marshall, one of the best receivers in the game. He then signed free agent wideouts Eric Weems and Devin Thomas, before selecting Alshon Jeffery in the second round of the 2012 draft.
Those four additions were necessary, as Roy Williams was not retained, Sam Hurd went to jail and Johnny Knox appears at least a year away from returning to full health. The team retains Earl Bennett, Devin Hester and Dane Sanzenbacher, leaving the Bears with seven wideouts and only six roster spots.
Marshall, Jeffery, Bennett and Hester are all fixtures at this point. All are expected to contribute mightily this year and are not going anywhere soon. And Weems, based on recent offseason practices, has secured a spot in the receiver rotation.
WR Devin Thomas
David Banks/US Presswire
That leaves just Thomas and Sanzenbacher to battle it out in Bourbonnais next month for the sixth and final receiver position on Chicago's 2012 roster.
The case for Thomas
Thomas was drafted by the Redskins in the second round of the 2008 draft. He has ideal size (6-2, 211) and speed (4.4 40-yard dash) and was projected coming out of Michigan State as a potential Pro Bowler at the next level.
That never materialized for the Redskins and, after a little more than two seasons in Washington, the team released him. He was then signed by the Carolina Panthers but was cut shortly thereafter. The Giants then picked him up, where he played all of last year.
Yet over the past two seasons, playing with three different teams, Thomas has caught just three total passes. To this point, he has not been able to find his groove as an NFL receiver.
The measurables are still there though and he has looked very fast on the practice fields this offseason. A new shot in Chicago is just what he needs to revive a once-promising career.
The case for Sanzenbacher
Coming out of training camp last season, Sanzenbacher was one of five undrafted free agents on Chicago's 53-man roster. With Earl Bennett's chest injury in Week 2 came increased reps for Sanzenbacher. He made the most of his opportunity, catching 18 passes, three for touchdowns, over the next six weeks.
He's a solid possession receiver who runs very good routes and can create separation out of his breaks. Sanzenbacher is at his best on underneath routes where he can fully utilize his quickness.
Yet during that six-week stretch, he dropped far too many passes. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, Sanzenbacher led the Bears in drops with seven. This led to his eventual demotion and, after the Week 8 bye, he didn't catch another ball until Week 15, after Knox's injury.
Sanzenbacher is a very smart player who has value as a slot receiver. The drops are concerning but the kid gives 100 percent effort on every play and, if he takes another step this year, can be a solid contributor in Chicago's passing attack.
Predicting the winner
The key to this battle is special teams. Both players are mediocre wideouts that likely won't make much of an impact in the passing game this year.
Yet Thomas is an accomplished kick returner, with 60 returns under his belt so far in his career. On top of that, he has been successful in punt and kick coverage. Sanzenbacher, on the other hand, has no experience on special teams.
The Bears put a premium on special teams play and, in this case, that will be the deciding factor in this competition.
Winner: Devin Thomas
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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.