One of Phil Emery's first personnel moves after accepting the position of general manager for the Chicago Bears was trading for wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Emery sent two third-round draft picks to the Miami Dolphins for one of the best receivers in the league, one with a history of success playing with Jay Cutler.
While Marshall was as good as advertised, the rest of the receiving corps took a step back. Let's break down the play of Chicago's wideouts in 2012 to figure out what improvements need to be made.
Bears fans have never witnessed wide receiver production similar to that which Marshall posted last season. He finished second in the league in receptions (118) and third in receiving yardage (1,508), both of which are Bears franchise records. Marshall was second in the league in targets (194) and fourth in receiving touchdowns (11). His 75 first-down catches were third in the NFL.
WR Brandon Marshall
Marshall was absolutely dominant this year. He finished with six or more catches in all but four contests and carried the team's passing attack for long stretches. He is, without a doubt, the greatest receiver to ever play in Chicago. Going forward, the team can build the offense around Marshall's abilities.
Yet last season, Marshall had an adverse affect on Cutler. With his favorite target on the field, Cutler forced countless balls to Marshall, essentially ignoring the rest of his receiving corps game after game. It got to the point that, if Marshall wasn't open, the play would fail.
Much of that had to with a lack of other reliable options in the passing attack. Despite that, going forward Cutler must learn to spread the ball around. Forcing passes over and over to one receiver isn't a recipe for offensive success. In fact, it's a perfect way to stall an aerial attack. Consider this: the Bears added Marshall, one of the top three receivers in the game, yet the passing attack dropped from 24th in 2011 to 28th in 2012.
Better balance must be found between Cutler, Marshall and the rest of the club's wideouts. Otherwise, Chicago's passing game will continue to hover in the bottom third of the NFL.
Emery made another move last year to upgrade the receiving corps, trading up in the second round of the draft to select South Carolina wideout Alshon Jeffery. The big-bodied pass catcher (6-3, 215) showed very well at times during his rookie campaign. On deep balls and comeback routes, Jeffery is very adept at keeping his big frame in between the ball and defender.
After one season, in which he endured some serious growing pains, it's clear that Jeffery has the potential to be a solid complement to Marshall as Chicago's No. 2 receiver. He finished the year fourth on the team in receptions (24), third in receiving yardage (367) and second in touchdowns catches (3). But Jeffery has to stay on the field. In 2012, he missed six contents due to injury, time missed that stunted his development as a pro.
He has all the potential in the world though and, if used correctly, Jeffery can be a dangerous weapon for the Bears' offense. If new head coach Marc Trestman can mold him into a consistent receiver – one who can run more than just hitch and fly patterns – Cutler will have two explosive playmakers on each side of the field, which is very promising.
WR Earl Bennett
Don McPeak/USA TODAY Sports
Before every season, the talk of a breakout campaign by Earl Bennett spreads around Chicago. Then, at the end of every year, we wonder why he never lived up to expectations. Such was the case again for Bennett in 2012.
He missed four games due to injury and finished with just 29 catches for 375 yards and two touchdowns. Despite having arguably the best hands in the NFL, Bennett just cannot produce like a No. 2, or even a No. 3., receiver on a consistent basis.
Working mainly out of the slot, he has not shown an ability to create separation out of his breaks and struggles mightily against physical corners at the line of scrimmage. There is a lot to like about Bennett and at 25 years old, he still has time to get better, but that improvement needs to come quickly.
Bennett is signed through 2015, so he has plenty of time to further develop with Cutler under Trestman. But if that development doesn't come quickly, with vastly improved numbers, the team may want to consider moving on from Bennett. The next few years will surely decide his future in Chicago.
The Devin Hester project is over. For years the Bears tried to fit Hester into the role of a No. 1 wideout and he has never come close to being such a player. In reality, he's nothing more than a No. 4 receiver, and a mediocre one at that.
The bad news continues for Hester, who turned 30 this season. Historically, the production drop off for kick returners once they reach the age of 30 is very steep. It's one of the many reasons Hester questioned whether he wants to continue playing football, following the firing of Lovie Smith.
For all these reasons, Bears brass would be wise to trade Hester. Unfortunately, the market for an aging kick returner is very slim, bordering on nonexistent. Don't be surprised if the team outright cuts him this offseason. And if he does return, his impact in the final year of his contract will likely be minimal.
It was a good run for Hester but it's time to move on.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.