Historically, the Chicago Bears have not boasted great receiving corps. With a defense-first organization, that's not all that surprising. Yet now that GM Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman are in charge, that has all changed. The emphasis now is to score points and to that end, the team has invested heavily in its receivers the past two years.
In charge of the new-look wideout group is wide receivers coach Mike Groh. This is Groh's first stop in the NFL, having worked at the collegiate level from 2001-2012, most recently as receivers coach at Alabama.
Groh inherits one of the most dynamic pass catchers in the game in Brandon Marshall. He said Julio Jones is the only player he's coached who compares to Chicago's No. 1 pass catcher but admits Marshall's one of a kind.
"Brandon is certainly very special," Groh told Bear Report. "If you're going to design [a receiver], that's what you'd design him to be. As big as he is, 6-4, 230, and as fast as his is, with the ball skills that he has, he's a rare combination."
Marshall set franchise records in receptions (118) and receiving yards (1,508) last season, yet the passing offense finished 29th in the league. QB Jay Cutler's dependence on Marshall was great for the receiver's numbers but the one-dimensional approach ultimately hurt the team.
"I think that's one of the things with coach [Marc] Trestman's system, what makes it unique, is we're going to try to spread the football around so the defense can't key on just one guy," said Groh. "But it certainly is nice that you can rattle off three or four names there that are some weapons that the defense has to be aware of."
Jeffery, the club's second-round pick last season, is the player most expect to breakout this year. Count Groh in as one of those who sees a big season for Jeffery in 2013.
"I certainly am seeing a lot of progress by Alshon," he said. "He's had a tremendous offseason and it's carried over to camp. You see tremendous things from him every day. He's a really sharp, instinctive player with tremendous ball skills."
Moving beyond the starters, a few of the young wideouts on the roster have been very impressive in camp. Terrence Toliver and Marcus Rucker have both flashed playmaking ability.
"I'm pleased with their progress," said Groh. "Every single day they are learning more football. There is good and bad every single day. Every guy has had an opportunity to flash and I'm pleased overall with the production of the group and the progress of the group. We tell those guys all the time, it's a process. We're not focused on the results every day. It's a process. What are we trying to get better at every day?"
Yet Joe Anderson is the one turning heads in camp. As the club's No. 4 wideout, Anderson has been borderline unstoppable at times. He's shown great strength against man-to-man, even when squaring off against the two All-Pro cornerbacks, and seems to always find the open area in zone coverage.
"Joe's very strong," Groh said. "He's shown some strong hands. He's been able to rip the ball out of the air. He's got very good speed, he can accelerate and do something with the ball after the catch. He's had a productive camp so far."
The enigma of this group is seventh-round rookie Marquess Wilson, who is extremely talented. Wilson has shown great body control and the ability to make the highlight-reel grabs. Yet he's also been very inconsistent with his hands and his route running.
"I think that's the case with any young football player coming into a new system at a new level. He's learning what it takes and what it's all about here in the NFL, just like all of them are."
When the team pares down the roster to 53 players, and Groh must decide which receivers will stay and which will be cut, ball security will play heavily into his decision.
"I think if you went to 32 practices, you'd hear that on every one of the practice fields," said Groh. "Everybody knows that the team that wins the turnover battle, or is plus-two in the turnover battle, wins 80 percent of the time. So obviously protecting the football is a big part of what we're emphasizing."
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.