For years, Chicago Bears wide receivers have performed well below average. It reached a crisis point last season, with the team breaking camp with the "drop master" Roy Williams leading the charge, and an undrafted rookie rounding out the unit.
As such, by the time Johnny Knox was lost with a back injury in Week 14, the group was in shambles. So much so that Earl Bennett, a No. 3 wideout on most NFL rosters, was being consistently double teamed, as opposing defenses knew there were no other competent pass catchers to worry about.
Defenses could stack the box to stuff the run without repercussions. If they felt like blitzing eight players, they could, as Chicago didn't have a single receiver that could consistently beat press coverage. As a result, after Jay Cutler went down with a thumb injury, the Bears' offense spiraled out of control.
New GM Phil Emery was well aware of this deficiency and, upon his hiring, immediately went to work upgrading the team's receivers. In fact, Emery's work this offseason has many observers convinced this is Chicago's best unit in decades, if not longer.
WR Brandon Marshall
Let's break down the Bears' wideouts heading into training camp.
Starters: Brandon Marshall, Devin Hester, Earl Bennett
The trade for Brandon Marshall brings to Chicago the most-accomplished receiver the city has ever seen. On top of that, Marshall has experience with quarterback Jay Cutler. The two played for three seasons together in Denver, where each earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2008. Marshall was named to two additional Pro Bowls, in 2009 and last season, with Kyle Orton and Matt Moore throwing to him respectively.
Marshall has averaged 95 catches and 1,187 yards the past five seasons. Those numbers spike to 102 catches and 1,237 yards per season during his three years with Cutler in Denver. If Marshall can again produce those types of numbers in Chicago, he'll easily go down as one of the most-productive receivers in franchise history.
What makes Marshall so deadly is his combination of size (6-4, 230), speed and leaping ability, as well as running strong routes and being great after the catch. There are few cornerbacks in the league that can match up man-to-man with Marshall.
No one doubts Marshall's ability on the field, yet there are questions about his attitude and off-field problems. In Miami, he was considered a locker-room cancer and his rap sheet is as long as my right arm. It's believe that, by reuniting him with Cutler and quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates, who ran Denver's offense in 2008, will help keep Marshall happy and out of trouble. If that happens, expect Marshall to achieve a season unlike any other in Bears history.
Currently, Devin Hester is lined up out wide opposite Marshall. Hester took steps backward in his two years under former offensive coordinator Mike Martz. It's believed that new OC Mike Tice will better utilize Hester's talents. Yet his snaps will be limited this year.
Emery discussed a "Devin package" in April: a set of plays designed to capitalize on what Hester does best. The plan is to utilize his quickness and after-the-catch ability to make him a more-productive member of the passing attack. Yet the package also means Hester won't be on the field on every down, thus saving him for his duties on special teams, where he's one of the best returners in the NFL.
As such, expect the Bears to rotate rookie Alshon Jeffery out wide. The club wants their second-round pick on the field sooner than later and will give him every opportunity to earn playing time in training camp. If he impresses in Bourbonnais, and carries that over into the season, he'll likely be the starter before the end of the campaign.
With Jeffery, though, it's hard to gauge what he can offer Chicago's offense. He played at 230 pounds in college, yet dropped nearly 20 pounds before the draft. Will his reduced size still allow him to be physical when the ball is in the air? Is he faster now than he appeared to be at South Carolina? In essence, is he the same player the film shows him to be while in college? Training camp will give us a better idea of what Jeffery can provide to Chicago's offense.
WR Earl Bennett
In the slot, Earl Bennett is on the verge of a breakout season. According to Pro Football Focus, over the last three seasons, Bennett has demonstrated the best hands in the entire league. He has decent size (6-0, 204) and speed, and runs crisp routes. So far this offseason, he has looked outstanding, and Cutler has shown a willingness to fire Bennett's way early and often. Expect him to be a force out of the slot in 2012.
Eric Weems was signed this offseason mainly due to his ability as a kick returner, yet it took him just two weeks of OTAs before he worked his way into the Bears' No. 4 receiver role. He has shown very good quickness on underneath routes. His reps on offense will be limited due to his numerous duties on special teams but Weems will definitely have a place in this year's passing attack.
Devin Thomas, signed as a free agent this year, and Dane Sanzenbacher, who made the team last year as a UDFA, will battle it out in camp for the club's sixth and final receiver position. Sanzenbacher has struggled with consistency and drops too many passes. On top of that, he doesn't add much in special teams.
Thomas, on the other hand, is an accomplished kick returner that can immediately contribute in that area. Additionally, he's bigger (6-2, 221) and faster than Sanzenbacher (5-11, 180). Unless Sanzenbacher completely blows away the coaches in camp, Thomas will win this competition.
Crump, Anderson, Summers and Golden are all camp bodies that will be hard pressed to make the 53-man roster. During minicamp this offseason, Summers looked like the best of the group. He has ideal size (6-4, 211) and showed decent hands and leaping ability. If injuries pile up in front of him, he could sneak onto the roster. At the very least, he should make a quality member of the practice squad.
Marshall is set at the X spot, with Bennett set at Y. At Z, Hester will likely begin the season as the starter but expect Jeffery to supplant him at some point in the season. Hester would then likely split reps with Weems as the team's No. 4.
Thomas has caught just three passes the past two seasons combined, so don't expect much out of him unless injuries begin to mount. Otherwise, his contributions will come mainly on special teams.
Starters: Marshall, Bennett, Hester, Jeffery
Backups: Weems, 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.