Olsen Primed for a Pro Bowl in '09

While the Chicago Bears are still facing all kinds of questions at the wide receiver position, they're in tremendous shape at tight end. Greg Olsen in particular may be on the verge of a breakout year, as he and new quarterback Jay Cutler spent their offseason getting to know each other.

The Monsters of the Midway had a tremendous offseason and bettered themselves at several positions on both sides of the football, but they still have a hole to be filled at wide receiver.

Needless to say, trading Kyle Orton and a pair of first-round draft picks to Denver for Jay Cutler leaves them in much better shape at quarterback, as the former Bronco is fresh off his first appearance in the Pro Bowl. The protection up front should also be improved, especially if free-agent signee Orlando Pace still has some pep in his step at left tackle. Defensively, Pisa Tinoisamoa will vault into the starting lineup right away and gives the Bears arguably the best linebacking corps in the game.

While general manager Jerry Angelo did add three receivers in the draft this past April – Juaquin Iglesias in Round 3, Johnny Knox in Round 5, and Derek Kinder in Round 7 – he wasn't able to pry Anquan Boldin out of Arizona. The organization has been linked to chatter surrounding both Plaxico Burress and Brandon Marshall, but their off-the-field issues would give any decision maker pause. Perhaps Devin Hester can develop into a No. 1 and Earl Bennett is primed for success catching passes from Cutler again, but there are just as many questions with regard to the wideouts as there were when the 2008 season came to a disappointing conclusion.


Olsen caught 54 passes for 574 yards last year.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Not so at tight end, as Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen were terrific this past year and could be even better in 2009.

Still atop the depth chart at 32 years old, Clark has caught 45, 44, and 41 passes the last three seasons after losing a little weight and being rejuvenated in 2006. He very easily could have gotten sour after the Bears took Olsen at No. 31 overall in the draft two years ago, but he has been a professional every step of the way and mentored his eventual replacement both on and off the field. While his yards-per-catch average has dropped from 13.9 to 12.4 to 9.0 the last three campaigns, his hands are reliable, he's a sound blocker, and he has only missed two games during his six-year stint in the Windy City.

But if this is the cast of characters Bears fans can expect to see on opening day at receiver – Hester and Bennett out wide, Rashied Davis in the slot – then it's time for Olsen to become the next great tight end in this league.

Even though he was not as highly decorated in Coral Gables as fellow Miami Hurricane alumni Jeremy Shockey and Kellen Winslow, Olsen was the premier player at his position in the 2007 draft and caught 39 passes from three different quarterbacks as a rookie. With Orton under center for 15 games last year and taking the passing game up a notch, Olsen recorded 54 receptions for 574 yards and five touchdowns – keep in mind he put up those numbers with Clark technically starting in front of him. He was especially strong down the stretch, catching 20 balls for 176 yards and three TDs in four December contests.

"I really liked what Greg Olsen has been able to do this spring. Of course we know his talent, but I've really seen him move more toward being a dominant player always."
– Lovie Smith

Many think Olsen could be on the verge of a breakout season with a quarterback as talented as Cutler now at the controls, including head coach Lovie Smith.

"I really liked what Greg Olsen has been able to do this spring," Smith said Jun. 17, the final day of OTAs open to the media. "Of course we know his talent, but I've really seen him move more toward being a dominant player always."

And while many Bears fans still want the front office to go after a legitimate primary target like Burress or Marshall, despite the baggage each player brings to the table, Cutler believes he has the talent around him to succeed right now.

"We're good to go," Cutler said, the same day Smith made his comments. "We've got everything we need out there. I'm 100 percent comfortable. I think we've got more than enough to compete."


Olsen may be ready for a berth in the Pro Bowl.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Can Hester be a 1,000-yard performer this year? Possible, but unlikely. Will Bennett be Cutler's to-to guy again like he was at Vanderbilt? Maybe, maybe not. Davis is a fringe NFL player at best and Brandon Rideau is yet to catch a pass in the pros. The three rookies are going to be worked into the rotation slowly and can't be asked to play major roles just yet. Yes, Matt Forte is one of the better receiving backs in the league, but Cutler isn't going to revitalize the passing game with check-down throws.

Olsen is the key, and Cutler apparently knows that already since the two of them have been spending a lot of time together – whether it's on the practice field, visiting kids at La Rabida Children's Hospital, or tipping back a few adult beverages at Rockit.

Despite the fact that he lines up out wide almost as often as he does in tight and runs as well as most receivers, Olsen has only averaged 10.4 yards on his 93 career catches. While offensive coordinator Ron Turner deserves some of the blame, sending Olsen on too many short patterns to the sideline instead of utilizing his speed down the seam, Orton was never particularly accurate on deep passes. Denver tight ends Tony Scheffler and Daniel Graham averaged 16.1 and 12.2 yards per catch, respectively, last season with the rocket-armed Cutler, and Olsen is a better athlete than both of them.

With Olsen wreaking havoc in the middle of the field, Hester will benefit from increased one-on-one looks on the outside, Bennett can come along slowly as more of a No. 3 option than a No. 2, and Forte won't have to be a big battering ram against constant eight-man fronts. That's the kind of offense that will move the chains consistently, giving an aging defense more time to rest between series – a luxury not often afforded last year. If Olsen reels in 70-75 passes in 2009, look for the Midway Monsters to claw their way back to the playoffs.

And Olsen himself to make a strong case for his first Pro Bowl.


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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.

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