In a cost-cutting move yesterday, the Chicago Bears released wide receiver Earl Bennett. The club's third-round pick in 2008, Bennett spent his first six NFL seasons in Chicago. His best year came in 2009 when he caught 54 passes for 717 yards. Yet his play declined the past three seasons, culminating in a career-low 243 receiving yards in 2013.
Waiving Bennett clears $2.45 million off the franchise books, money GM Phil Emery desperately needs to finalize the 2014 roster, yet it leaves a hole in Marc Trestman's offense. Bennett was an experienced veteran who caught four touchdowns as the club's No. 3 wideout last year. To fill his shoes, the Bears have a few options.
The club could turn to Eric Weems but he's more of a special teams player who is also being asked to take a pay cut. There's a chance he may not even be on the roster by the time this article is published.
Emery last week signed Domenik Hixon, an eight-year veteran who has been a fairly productive receiver at different points in his career. Yet Dixon has never topped 43 catches or 600 receiving yards in a single season. In fact, he's caught more than 200 yards in a campaign just twice and is coming off a seven-catch, 55-yard performance last year. The Bears will give Hixon an opportunity to compete in training camp but his ceiling is limited.
Last year's seventh-round pick, former Washington State receiver Marquess Wilson, will likely be the biggest beneficiary from Bennett's release. As a rookie in 2013, Wilson caught just two passes for 13 yards but the Bears have much bigger expectations for him in 2014.
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Remember, Wilson was a potential first-round pick following his 2011 sophomore season in which he broke school records with 82 catches for 1,388 yards, and ranked second in WSU history with 12 touchdown receptions. Yet Wilson quit the team next season after Mike Leach took over the program, which led to his dramatic fall in the 2013 draft.
Wilson was impressive enough last season in limited action to give the Bears the confidence to terminate Bennett's contract. At 6-3, 194, Wilson has very good size and he's a fluid route runner. He showed good hands in training camp last year, although concentration was a major issue. Yet Wilson kept his nose clean and he improved throughout the season, which is why the Bears will enter the 2014 campaign with an untested, although potentially dangerous, second-year player as the club's No. 3 wideout.
That is unless Emery selects an early round receiver in this year's draft, an idea that seemed preposterous just a few weeks ago considering two Pro Bowl receivers already reside on the roster. Yet with Bennett's release, and the lack of a bona fide No. 3 in the pipeline, the team could be in the market for a receiver on the second day of the draft.
For two years, Emery has made every effort to turn the Bears' offense into a juggernaut. In free agency (Jermon Bushrod, Martellus Bennett), through trades (Brandon Marshall) and in the draft (Alshon Jeffery, Kyle Long, Jordan Mills) Emery has gone out of his way to supply the offense with top-tier talent at nearly every position. So why would he stop now?
Yes, the Bears need serious help on the defensive side of the ball, yet Emery has filled a number of holes in free agency, which includes signing three more defensive players yesterday. There are currently nine defensive ends on the roster and seven safeties. How many more bodies can be thrown at the problem?
It's easy to picture a scenario in which Emery has addressed defensive tackle in Round 1 and a premier slot receiver – a player like Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, who ran a 4.33 at the combine – is staring him in the face in Round 2. Is Emery going to add a 10th defensive end or a player who could take Trestman's passing offense to even greater heights?
The Bears want to get better on defense but with the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions (who added receiver Golden Tate this offseason to complement Megatron) in the division, there's only so much Chicago will be able to do defensively. In reality, shootouts will be inevitable, especially if Roger Goodell realizes his Arena-League vision of the NFL. A blazing slot receiver could be that final piece that allows the Bears to win those high-scoring affairs.
So while we all focus on defensive difference-makers in the first two days of the draft, keep an eye on those play-making wideouts early on, as they could be the twinkle in Emery's eye.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth 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.