Much has been written about the new passing offense that the Chicago Bears will use this season. It's no secret that when the top five teams in the league pass for more than 4,700 yards and all five of those teams make the playoffs, you need to be a passing team.
Last season the Chicago Bears ranked 26th in the league with 3,011 yards passing for the season. The top two wide receivers had just 37 receptions each, and neither will be back with the team when the season begins.
For 2012, the Chicago Bear receiving corps will look very different than it did last season. This article will give a short break-down of each of them, and we'll talk about their chances of making the team at this point.
This Year Tillman only covers Marshall in Practice
Chicago opened the 2012 draft season with a bang. Most experts expected them to go after a big name free agent wide receiver like Vincent Jackson or Dwayne Bowe. Instead, new general manager Phil Emery sent two third round picks to the Miami Dolphins to acquire Brandon Marshall.
Marshall is coming off of his third Pro-Bowl season, and his fifth consecutive 1,000-yard season. He is reunited with QB Jay Cutler, the guy who was throwing to Marshall when he first made a name for himself back in Denver. Marshall's first two 1,000-yard seasons came with Cutler under center, and Chicago hopes that the streak will continue.
The only drawback is that Marshall has several documented off-the-field issues, including a night club incident that was announced just hours after the trade. Marshall was accused of punching a woman at the club, but he was recently cleared of all charges and is not expected to receive any punishment from the league either.
Given what Marshall did in Miami last season with a merry-go-round at QB, you can expect him to lead all Chicago receivers this season.
Devin Hester is entering his seventh season with the Bears, and he is still trying to make it as a wide receiver. While Hester holds a ton of kick and punt return records, he has never been more than an average wide receiver for the Bears. His best season with Chicago was back in 2009 when he finished the season with 57 receptions, 757 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns.
Last season, Hester sustained an ankle injury against Philadelphia on Monday Night Football. After the injury, Hester frequently missed practices and was severely limited as a receiver and kick returner the rest of the season. He finished the year with just 26 receptions for 369 yards and one touchdown.
For 2012, the Bears continue to work with Hester in multiple packages as a wide receiver. The Bears love working Hester outside as a deep threat, but he is also seeing time in the slot and in the backfield. Hester will probably start the season as more of a No. 3 receiver for Chicago, and he'll see time in special formations and packages.
Although his best contributions have come as a return man, Chicago has several other options for returners this season.
Earl Bennett is entering his fifth season with Chicago after signing a five year, $18.5 million contract in December. He spent a big portion of the 2011 season with some nagging injuries, and he only started four games for the Bears for the entire season. He finished the year with just 24 receptions for 381 yards and one touchdown. His best season as a Bear was back in 2009, when he finished with 717 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns.
For 2012, you can expect that Bennett will be the No. 2 receiver on the team after Marshall. Devin Hester is not consistent enough to be on the field for every play, and rookie Alshon Jeffery will have to prove himself before he replaces Bennett in the starting lineup.
The key with Bennett is that he needs to stay healthy, because he has only started seven games for Chicago over the last two seasons. Chicago needs him to be healthy and on the field if they hope to improve their passing game.
Rookie Alshon Jeffery from South Carolina was selected by the Bears in the second round of this year's draft. Jeffery had a very promising second season at Carolina, but had weight issues land a lackluster performance last year, and his draft stock dropped a bit. He had good size and leaping ability, but will never be known as a guy with blazing speed.
He was one of the first rookies to sign his contract, and he has been in camp and OTAs since they started. He has done well in practice so far, but he probably will not be a starter Week 1. Unless Earl Bennett is injured or Jeffery explodes during the preseason, you can expect him to be the No. 3 or No. 4 receiver on opening day. By the end of the season though, he could be starting opposite Brandon Marshall.
Johnny Knox finished the 2011 season as the No. 1 receiver for the Chicago Bears. He only had 37 receptions, but finished with 727 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns. He also sustained a severe spine injury in the December game against Seattle. Knox had major spine surgery to repair the damage, but the road to recovery will be long and painful.
Knox will begin the season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list, and it is still questionable if he will play at all in the 2012 season. It is too early to tell how far back he will be able to come.
Eric Weems was signed this offseason as a free agent wide receiver from the Atlanta Falcons. Weems spent five seasons with the Falcons, primarily as a kick and punt returner. He was also a solid special teams player, using his smaller size and great speed to zip down the field and make the tackle.
Although Weems will sometimes line up in five receiver sets, he has never been a consistent offensive weapon. His best year as a receiver was last season, when he finished the year with just 11 receptions for 97 yards. He'll play a complementary role for the Bears this season, playing special teams and splitting time with Devin Hester returning kicks and punts.
Dane Sanzenbacher played well last season for the Bears as a rookie, filling in for Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox when they missed time due to injury. Sanzenbacher was an undrafted free agent from Ohio State, but his ability to find the soft spots in the defense made him a nice possession receiver. He finished his rookie year with 27 receptions for 276 yards and three touchdowns.
For 2012, due to Knox's injury, you can expect Sanzenbacher to make the team as a backup receiver. He will probably be the No. 5 or the No. 6 receiver on the depth chart.
Devin Thomas was the 34th overall pick in the 2008 draft by the Washington Redskins. The former Michigan State standout came into the league with big expectations, but never really lived up to them. Despite the high draft pick, Thomas was more of a special teams player for Washington, and after two uneventful seasons, he was cut in 2010.
He was claimed by the Carolina Panthers but was cut again after five games with no statistics. The New York Giants claimed him before the end of the 2010. He stayed on with the Super Bowl champs last season, and had a key fumble recovery in overtime against the San Francisco 49ers in overtime of the NFC championship game.
He signed a one year, $700,000 contract with Chicago this off season, and he is on the bubble to make the final roster. The Bears have a solid group of young receivers this year, and Thomas will have to have a solid preseason if he hopes to make the team.