Throughout nearly the entire offseason, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was without his favorite target, wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Recovering from minor hip surgery, Marshall spent most of OTAs and minicamp on the sidelines, getting occasional reps late in the process.
Yet coach Marc Trestman said he expects his top receiver back full-time come training camp.
"There was no plan, we just kind of took it as it came, and we left it up to Brandon to assess his body and where he is," Trestman said at the end of minicamp. "We thought it was best collectively to keep him out of practice as much as he could, and we could, and we did. He'll be back ready to go next month."
Also on the shelf was Alshon Jeffery, who tweaked his hamstring during OTAs, forcing him to sit out veteran minicamp. Jeffery is entrenched as the club's No. 2 wideout, so Cutler was without his top two pass catchers for the large majority of the offseason programs.
"We turned it into a positive. We got a great look at some of the young guys," said Trestman. "They were ready to step in. We had very few, if any, mental errors. They were running routes at full speed. They were catching the football when they had the opportunity. So it was good for them to get the reps and get the reps against our top players on defense. Those are good things."
With the top guys out, Earl Bennett saw his fair share of passes out of the slot. Yet the biggest beneficiary was second-year receiver Joe Anderson, who spent most of last year on the practice squad before being called up late in the campaign. The experience obviously did him well, as Anderson has easily separated himself from the other backup pass catchers.
By the middle of OTAs, Anderson had been elevated to the first team and was one of Cutler's favorite targets throughout veteran minicamp. Anderson isn't the biggest or fastest guy but he's physical and can create space in man coverage. He's also shown a knack for finding open areas against zone sets. Anderson's considerable improvement has been one of the biggest surprises of the offseason. He's currently on pace to snatch the club's No. 4 receiver role, assuming he continues to make plays in Bourbonnais.
Undrafted rookie Marcus Rucker has worked exclusively with the second team and has shown serious playmaking ability. He has great size (6-4, 210) and leaping ability and could be a threat in the red zone. Brittan Golden has also made the most of his second-team reps, although is lack of size and speed could hurt him down the line.
The wildcard here is Devin Aromashodu. While the backups were moving up the depth chart due to the Marshall and Jeffery injuries, the team chose to snag Aromashodu in free agency and immediately inserted the five-year veteran with the second team. He instantly became backup quarterback Josh McCown's favorite target.
"I'm definitely a little bit more experienced and I think a little bit more consistent," Aromashodu said during minicamp.
Further helping the development of Chicago's receivers has been Trestman's practice structure. During each 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drill, Trestman has Cutler work with the starters but he also takes one rep when the backups hit the field. In this way, Cutler is able to develop chemistry with every receiver on the team.
The wide receiver battle in Bourbonnais will be fun to watch, as almost every pass catcher on the training camp depth chart has a realistic shot at making the final 53-man roster. But one thing is for sure, there won't be any excuse for mistakes. With an extended offseason program that had each receiver climbing the depth chart, the time for learning is over.
And if injuries force these guys into action on offense during the regular season, the extra time spent working with the first and second teams should do them well.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. 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.