Stop me if you've heard this before:
"Earl Bennett is going to break out this year."
That is something NFL writers, myself included, have been saying since the Chicago Bears wide receiver caught 54 passes for 717 yards during his second NFL season in 2009. Yet Bennett took a small step backward in 2010 (46 catches, 561 yards) and has since regressed to nothing more than a tertiary option for quarterback Jay Cutler – which is saying something, considering Bennett and Cutler also played together at Vanderbilt.
Over the past two years combined, Bennett has just 53 total catches for 756 yards and three touchdowns. Despite having one of the best sets of hands in the NFL – Pro Football Focus once graded Bennett one of the best pure pass catchers in the league – he has annually come short of expectations.
There are a number of factors that have contributed to Bennett's poor numbers. First, a host of injuries have put him on the shelf for nine games the past two years combined. It's hard to post numbers when you're on the sidelines in street clothes.
Second, Bennett has struggled considerably to beat press coverage. Physical defenders give him fits. As a result, he can never consistently create separation and typically only has success against smaller nickel corners.
Third, Bennett never found a true role in the downfield passing attacks of Mike Martz and Mike Tice. Bennett is at his best on short and intermediate routes. He runs good routes, has great hands and is decent after the catch. Yet down the field, he lacks the size and speed to be a deep threat. Last year, Bennett caught just 16.3 percent of the passes thrown to him 15 yards or deeper, which was near the bottom of the league.
So in Marc Trestman's new West Coast system, which relies on a short-passing attack, can Bennett resurrect his career and finally be the consistent slot threat most believe he can be?
Throughout the recent OTAs and minicamps, Bennett has been a regular target for Cutler. In fact, no receiver has caught more first-team passes in practice than Bennett. A number of plays have been designed for him to get the ball underneath the linebackers, as well as in the flats. He has once again displayed his trademark hands and appears to be an integral part of the offense.
Yet much of that extra attention was because of injuries to both of the starters. Brandon Marshall missed almost the entire offseason recovering from hip surgery and Alshon Jeffery was held out of veteran minicamp with a hamstring injury. With those two in street clothes, Cutler turned to Bennett to fill the void. Bennett has taken advantage of the opportunity, which is a good sign, but there won't be nearly as many passes coming his way in training camp when both Marshall and Jeffery return.
And with Martellus Bennett commanding balls in the middle of the field, Earl Bennett's piece of the pie shrinks even further. In essence, Earl is now the fourth option for Cutler in the passing game, so expecting Bennett to match his 2009 numbers seems overly optimistic.
But that could change depending on how often Trestman chooses to pass the ball this year. Under former head coach Lovie Smith, the Bears "got off the bus running the ball." That will change under Trestman but how much?
In 15 starts in 2012, Cutler passed the ball 434 times. He missed six games in 2011 but in 15 in starts in 2010, he attempted just 432 passes.
Going back to Trestman's last six years as an offensive coordinator in the NFL – from 1998-2000 in Arizona, and from 2001-2003 in Oakland – his quarterbacks averaged 559.5 pass attempts per season. So we can safely assume that Cutler will attempt roughly 130 more passes this year than he did in any of the past three seasons. Due to the sheer number of passes that will be attempted this year, Bennett's numbers should see a nice boost.
But will Bennett be more effective under Trestman? Almost assuredly. Trestman has frequently sent Bennett in motion this offseason, which should help him against press coverage, and hasn't asked him to be a main downfield threat, which plays to his strengths. It will be shocking if Bennett's numbers don't see a dramatic spike.
But will he be a bigger part of the offense and emerge as something more than a No. 4 option for Cutler? Not likely. At this point, we know what kind of receiver Bennett is and what his limitations are. That doesn't mean he won't have a role in this offense but expecting him to be anything more than a role player is asking too much.
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.