The Southeastern Conference has the reputation of having the most talent overall in college football on a team-by-team basis, and said reputation has stood the test of time for quite a while.
Some of the best wide receivers in the NFL the last decade or so have come out of the SEC. Eric Moulds was a first-round pick out of Mississippi State, and he's been named to three Pro Bowls while recording 764 receptions in 12 years. Hines Ward also played quarterback and tailback at Georgia, but he found a home at wideout on Sundays to the tune of four Pro Bowls and 719 catches – a Steelers franchise record. Darrell Jackson, selected in Round 1 out of Florida, put together three 1,000-yard seasons in Seattle and has reeled in 487 passes since 2000. All three of them are in the top 25 among active players for career receptions.
But not one of them caught as many balls on campus as Vanderbilt's Earl Bennett, who was selected by the Chicago Bears in the third round of this past weekend's NFL Draft.
"I think I have a lot of confidence in my route running and catching the ball," Bennett said via conference call shortly after being drafted. "Technique is something we worked on a lot at Vanderbilt, and I am sure it is very important at the next level. So that's one of the main attributes that I bring as a wide receiver, and hopefully I can utilize that at the next level."
As a matter of fact, Bennett's 236 career receptions are the most in the storied history of the SEC. Even more impressive, he put up those numbers in just three seasons for the Commodores and then declared for the draft after his junior year. And while he may have been fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of tight spirals from future first-round pick Jay Cutler as a freshman in 2005, he was every bit as productive in `06 and `07 with the likes of Mackenzi Adams and Chris Nickson under center in Nashville – neither is considered an NFL prospect by any stretch of the imagination.
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Bennett caught 79 passes as a true freshman out of Birmingham, another SEC record, so perhaps he can make the leap from college to the pros just as easily as he did from high school to college.
"I like Earl a lot," said offensive coordinator Ron Turner. "We targeted him early. We had a really high grade on him. We watched a lot of tape on him. He has great quickness. He's a really good route runner, very precise route runner. He's good right after the catch. He will go up and catch the ball and battle for it and catch it in a crowd. He has good speed. He's very competitive and very intelligent. He brings a lot. He's a good all-around receiver."
Fact of the matter is, Turner needs Bennett to live up his scouting report and make a contribution right away. Both of his starters from a year ago, Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad, are sporting new addresses, as the speedy Berrian signed with the rival Vikings in free agency and the veteran Muhammad was released back in February. Marty Booker and Brandon Lloyd were both brought in this offseason, although Booker – a former Pro Bowler for the Bears – hasn't cracked the 1,000-yard plateau since 2001 and Lloyd was an absolute bust his two seasons with the Redskins.
The organization continues to be high on Mark Bradley and Devin Hester showed flashes after making the switch from cornerback, but there doesn't appear to be a legitimate primary target on the roster as presently constituted.
"We see him as having starter talent," director of college scouting Greg Gabriel said of Bennett. "Whether he becomes a starter as a rookie, that remains to be seen. But we see him as a guy with starter talent."
The Monsters of the Midway don't scare anybody on offense these days, which explains why their top three draft picks this past weekend were on the offensive side of the ball. Lineman Chris Williams, who was one of Bennett's teammates at Vandy, was taken in the first round to anchor the left tackle position, and Tulane running back Matt Forte could challenge incumbent Cedric Benson for the starting job sooner than later. Along with Bennett, the three rookies will look to improve a Bears attack that was just 27th in the league last year at 293.3 total yards per game and 18th at 20.9 points per game – a number that was deceptively high because of Hester's wizardy on special teams as a return man.
Receiver is arguably the hardest position on the field to make the transition from the college game to the pro game because of the speed and physicality of NFL defensive backs, but the 6-0, 209-pounder believes he can make an impact right out of the gate.
Rob Carr/AP Images
"Hopefully," said Bennett, "as soon as possible. Any way that I can help the team out. I am ready to go."
His bet fit initially may be in the slot, as he's reputed to be very tough and doesn't mind working the middle of the field. He knows how to find the soft spots in zone coverage, can gain extra yards after contact, and did not drop a single pass from Cutler throughout his Pro Day performance. Current slot receiver Rashied Davis was recently inked by the club to a three-year contract after not getting any serious offers as a restricted free agent, but he looked to be phased out of the offense toward the end of last year and may only be a special-teamer going forward.
Along with seventh-round physical freak Marcus Monk from Arkansas, Bennett could add a fresh element to the receiving corps that's been missing for quite some time.
"We will give him an opportunity, obviously, to come in and compete right away," Turner said. "He's a very intelligent young man, so he shouldn't have any trouble picking things up. He's very competitive, so I know that he will enjoy coming in and competing. We'll give him a chance to come in and compete with the guys we have currently on our roster."
But can we really take Bennett's collegiate numbers seriously on a bad Vanderbilt team that wasn't exactly loaded with pro prospects?
"If you watch the tape," said Gabriel, "he comes up big every game. He was their go-to guy. Everybody knew that was who they were going to throw to, yet he still came up with big catches."
Bennett has drawn comparisons to the aforementioned Ward, who just happens to be a former Super Bowl MVP.
John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.