Which Wideout Catches On?

The acquisition of Muhsin Muhammad provides Ron Turner's offense with a go-to receiver, and the kind of stability that will aid Rex Grossman in what Bear fans hope will be his first full season as a Bear. What happens at the other starting wide receiver position is still a mystery, clouded with question marks. Quite often, wide receivers start to emerge in their second and third seasons. The Bears are loaded with young players looking to break out.

Justin Gage has the first shot at the starting position opposite Muhammad. Gage is a huge target (6'4") who showed signs of being a deep threat his rookie season. Offensive Coordinator Terry Shea ignored him last year. Does he have what it takes to be a starting wide receiver in the NFL? He has good hands and deceptive speed to go along with his size. He doesn't necessarily compliment Muhammad as much as he emulates him. It wouldn't be a terrible thing to have two Muhammads, would it? When given the opportunity to be the focal point of the offense in college, Gage excelled. He caught 82 passes for 1,075 yards and nine touchdowns his senior year at Missouri, including a seven catch performance against a Ron Turner-coached Fighting Illini team in the season opener. He has proven little in the NFL up to now. He'll get every opportunity to show he can be an answer.

Bernard Berrian is the top challenger to Gage. Berrian possesses blazing speed but isn't as strong as many of the other receivers on the roster. He's high cut, which means he is thin with long legs and a high waist in the mold of former Michigan Wolverines' great Anthony Carter. Berrian flashed some of that speed last year when he and Craig Krenzel connected for a couple of long touchdowns. His slight build would lead people to believe he can't take the game in game out pounding. However, he too was a go-to receiver in college, catching 85 passes for 1,364 yards and 13 touchdowns at Fresno State as a junior. Berrian is supposed to have solid hands, but struggled at times catching the ball in traffic as a rookie. He'll need to show consistency in his route-running and ability to catch the ball in all situations to earn the starting role. If he can do this, he'll rise above being a novelty, where he is relegated to the role of being a "speed receiver." Players in that role usually are third or fourth options who only see snaps in special packages.

Bobby Wade was drafted with Justin Gage, and has seen a good deal of action in his two seasons with the Bears. Wade caught 42 passes for 481 yards last season, but failed to score a touchdown. Wade doesn't bring the physical tools the other receivers possess. He's not very tall (5'10") or very fast. He does possess a good deal of quickness and has a reputation for having excellent hands. Wade's hands failed him last season on several occasions. His lack of foot speed has many people thinking he's on the bubble this season. However, his ability to work the middle of the field, catch short passes and make people miss fits right in with the kind of offense Ron Turner will be running. Additionally, the lack of good timing that plagued the previous offense and quarterbacks running it will be a glaring contrast to what Turner's system will feature. Wade, who hauled in 93 receptions for 1,389 yards and 8 touchdowns his final season at the University of Arizona, has abilities that will play well in the scheme and tempo of this offense. Many Bear fans are counting him out, but he just might turn into the pleasant surprise that drew comparisons to Bobby Engram when he left college.

The rookie candidates include Mark Bradley and Airese Currie. Others who may contribute include roster hopefuls Eddie Berlin, Carl Ford, Ron Johnson and Kareem Kelly. Bradley is a raw project who possesses blazing speed. His ability to change games on special teams and his potential as a receiver led the Bears to select him at the top of the second round. Currie is also very fast. He was a leading receiver at Clemson as a senior. However, he is getting over a foot injury that could keep him sidelined for a while. Kelly was a leading receiver at USC. Berlin and Ford haven't done much as professionals, but both of them were 1,000 yard receivers at smaller programs in college (N. Iowa and Toledo, respectively). Even Ron Johnson, a conversion project at tight end, was a 1,000-yard receiver in college at Minnesota.

How likely is it that one of these players steps up and becomes a regular contributor? It's not out of the question. Marcus Robinson, mired on the depth chart before being given a chance by a new coaching regime, emerged as a game-changing receiver when finally given the opportunity. If Turner's offense is anything like it was during his first tenure, the starter opposite Muhammad should expect 60-80 receptions. Three and four wide receiver sets weren't used as much in that era, nor in that scheme. If that holds true, there could be a severe drop-off between the starters and the third and fourth receivers. How the depth chart stacks up at the end of training camp could be more crucial than it has been in many years. Which receiver will step up their level of play? Let's hope it's at least one of them.

Bear Report Top Stories