Time for Bradley to Strut His Stuff

Nobody denies the fact that Mark Bradley is oozing with talent. He's big, he's strong, he's fast, and he knows what to do with the football once he gets it in his hands. The trouble is, Bears fans haven't been able to see it very much because nagging injuries have dominated Bradley's two seasons in Chicago. The offense needs a spark in 2007, so could Bradley be the one to provide it?

In terms of natural ability, Mark Bradley is probably the most talented wide receiver you'll find on the Chicago Bears roster.

Then why, pray tell, did he finish seventh on the team with only 14 receptions in 2006? How is it possible that fullback Jason McKie is more involved in the passing offense? Why is Rashied Davis, a former Arena Leaguer who was playing cornerback not too long ago, coming up with huge catches in the clutch while Bradley struggles for playing time?

There are a few legitimate reasons for Bradley's slow development as an NFL wideout: he suffered a severe knee injury midway through his rookie campaign in 2005 and is still working his way back; other nagging injuries kept popping up along the way in 2006 and never allowed him to get fully healthy; starters Muhsin Muhammad and Bernard Berrian both played pretty well and therefore deserved the majority of the snaps.

"There was an earthquake! A terrible flood! Locusts! It wasn't my fault, I swear to God!"

The mystery woman may have bought what Joliet Jake was selling in the tunnel below the Palace Hotel Ballroom in The Blues Brothers, but Bears fans are having a harder time with the continued excuses for Bradley's lack of production.

A second-round draft pick out of Oklahoma in 2005, Bradley has all the makings of a prototypical receiver at the NFL level. Not only is he generously built at 6'1" and an even 200 pounds, but he was also a standout athlete in track and field as a prepster setting Arkansas state records in the high jump and long jump along the way. The son of a former Oklahoma quarterback, Danny Bradley, he is overflowing with superstar pedigree.

As a first-year player in `05, Bradley quickly made an impact and was inserted into the starting lineup opposite Muhammad by Week 4. But just as he was finding his stride and making a difference in the passing game, he blew out his right knee in a Week 8 victory at Detroit and missed the rest of the year on injured reserve. He finished his debut season with 18 catches for 230 yards, but it appeared that the Bears had found a quality pass-catcher assuming he could get back to 100% in `06.

Even though he was forced to watch from the sideline in street clothes half his rookie season, Bradley believes that he still found ways to get better.

"I learned how things are developing from the offensive side to the defensive side," he said back on Dec. 27, "and I think that helped me become a better football player today."

Unfortunately, Bradley was having trouble showing that he had become a better football player this past season because of more ticky-tack injuries. The team forced him to take it slow in training camp just to be safe, and then he suffered a bruised hip in the preseason finale against Cleveland. A mysterious sprained ankle limited him to just one catch for five yards through eight games of the regular season and had him on the inactive list more often than not.

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And with Berrian morphing into a dangerous deep threat and Davis settling in nicely in the slot, Bradley was getting squeezed out of the picture in a hurry.

After Berrian bruised some ribs in the Week 9 loss to Miami, Bradley stepped right in and picked up the slack. He caught four passes for 79 yards and a touchdown in Week 10 against the Giants and hauled in four more balls for 80 yards and another score the next week versus the Jets. Was he finally back and ready to become a regular contributor on offense?

"Every receiver loves a one-on-one situation," Bradley said after the team's second straight visit to the Meadowlands in Week 11. "It's just you and a DB on an island, and may the best man win. We feel like all of our receivers can beat DBs one-on-one."

However, whatever momentum Bradley managed to sustain quickly came to a halt. He came up with only one reception for 15 yards the following game at New England and was shut out for three weeks after that. There simply was nowhere to put him because Muhammad and Berrian were entrenched as the starters, Davis had found his niche as the No. 3 guy, and tight end Desmond Clark was enjoying the most productive stretch of his career.

The season-ending New Year's Eve loss to the Packers was a disappointment on every level, but it was Bradley who provided the lone highlight with a 75-yard scoring strike in the second half. He finished 2006 with only 14 catches for 282 yards. Pretty pedestrian totals, but the fact that he scored three touchdowns in limited action and averaged 20.1 yards per reception show that he has big-play ability.

The Bears will go into 2007 with the receiving corps most likely very similar to the way it looked in 2006. Muhammad will be 34 years old, but he's still got a little left in the tank as a reliable possession wideout. Berrian made a quantum leap as a third-year player and looks to have a very bright future. The diminutive Davis is limited in what he can do but had some huge catches in crunch time and became a fan favorite in the process.

That being said, it is Bradley who may possess the highest ceiling of them all.

Bradley is battling the dubious 'injury-prone' label right now, so finding a way to stay on the field for a full season has to be his first priority. If he can do that, there is no reason why he can't become a consistent target for quarterback Rex Grossman and make an improving passing game even better. He is simply too talented to just be another name on the depth chart.

"I'm trying to put myself in the best situation to perform Sunday," he said during Super Bowl week, coming back from yet another ankle injury.

Bradley would be wise to follow that philosophy throughout 2007.


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