Former Chicago Bears GM Jerry Angelo made one of the biggest trades in team history in 2009, sending over a handful of draft picks and Kyle Orton to Denver for quarterback Jay Cutler. After decades of futility at the position, Angelo jumped on an opportunity to finally bring a franchise signal caller to Chicago.
Cutler had just turned 26 at the time of the trade and was coming off a Pro Bowl season where he passed for 4,526 yards and 25 touchdowns. A naturally talented passer with a cannon for an arm was entering the prime of his career. It was a no-brainer for Angelo.
Yet since then, his biggest mistake as GM was surrounding Cutler with mediocre weapons at wide receiver. The team tried for years to thrust Devin Hester into the No. 1 role, yet he never developed into that player. Johnny Knox has been a decent deep threat but he doesn't offer much else. When Angelo signed Roy Williams last year to be Cutler's top target, it became clear he never had an intention of truly upgrading the club's wideouts.
QB Jay Cutler
In every year since Cutler has been in Chicago, the team's leading pass catcher has not been a wide receiver – RB Matt Forte in 2010 and 2011, TE Greg Olsen in 2009. As such, Cutler has struggled to reach elite status, despite being one of the most-talented passers in the league.
Current GM Phil Emery, upon earning the job this offseason, quickly made it a priority to upgrade the franchise's wide receivers.
"We have this franchise-level quarterback here, and I really believe that in Jay. I'm not cautious or afraid of saying it. I see a franchise-level quarterback; a quarterback that can take us to championships," Emery said this week on ESPN 1000. "So, how do we build around him? Let's take a look at what was on the roster."
Unlike Angelo, Emery immediately saw a glaring lack of talent at the receiver position.
"We've got to get him more weapons. That was the process," said Emery. "Brandon [Marshall] was part of that solution. Alshon [Jeffery] is a part of that solution. Putting them together with people like Earl Bennett, Devin Hester, Eric Weems, whoever ends up being our sixth or seventh [receiver]; and we've got a really nice mix of players that are competing for those positions."
Hold the phone. Did he just say seven receivers?
Typically, NFL teams don't like to go too heavy at any one position. Most like to max out their receiving corps at six, as Chicago did last season. Yet Emery foresees the possibility of seven, which has a lot of implications.
Assuming the team would keep six receivers at the most this season, the talk of training camp was the battle between Dane Sanzenbacher and Rashied Davis for the final receiver spot. Yet in Emery's opinion, if both players show they deserve a place on the 53-man roster, both will be kept.
Davis is a quality special teams player that can both cover and return kicks, a role in which he proved himself during his six years in Chicago (2005-2010). Yet he's limited as a pass catcher.
Sanzenbacher isn't accomplished on special teams but he has shown this offseason he can be a weapon in Chicago's offense. He runs great routes and isn't afraid to go over the middle. He can be successful out of the slot on a part-time basis and showed last year – when he caught three TDs during the five-game stretch when Earl Bennett was out – what he can accomplish if called into full-time duty.
One can argue that both players deserve a spot on the roster.
Emery has invested heavily this offseason in wideouts. He inherited Hester and Bennett, then added Marshall through a trade, Jeffery in the draft, and Davis and Eric Weems in free agency. These moves were made with one goal in mind: putting quality pieces around Cutler.
WR Dane Sanzenbacher
"Getting those weapons around here along with re-signing Matt Forte, bringing in Michael Bush, adding to our tight end roster, giving [Cutler] more targets and more flexibility [and] run and pass games that were more balanced, that is the plan."
Yet Weems and Davis also have value as returners, an area where Emery said he likes to have plenty of depth. In addition, the coaches have been using Sanzenbacher as both a punt and kick return in training camp, giving him extra value.
For all of these reasons, seven receivers suddenly doesn't appear to be that big of a stretch.
If that happens though, another position must be sacrificed. The Bears like to keep adequate depth in the trenches, and could be considering keeping nine offensive linemen and possibly 10 defensive linemen. That may not be possible though if they hang on to seven wideouts.
The club is also contemplating keeping four tight ends, and possibly six cornerbacks. Again, that becomes more difficult with an extra receiver. When you add on the fact the current injury issues at linebacker, things get even messier.
There are still three preseason games remaining, so there's a lot of football left before the team has to make a decision on the final roster. But Emery's comments give us a glimpse into the team's mindset as they break camp.
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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.