Chicago Bears Offseason Analysis: The Wide Receivers
This has been true in the past to some point, but hopefully things are slowly changing in Chicago.
A good example of this statement occurred when the Bears signed WR Mushin Muhammad prior to the 2005 season.
Muhammad was coming off a season in which he was arguably the best WR in the league in 2004.
He caught 93 passes for 1,405 yards and 15 touchdowns. His yardage and TD catches were tops in the NFL. After signing a contract to become a Bear, Muhammad topped 800 yards receiving just once while totaling only 12 TDs in three full seasons.
Mushin decided to go back to Carolina following the 2007 season and proceeded to catch 65 passes for 923 yards and five TDs in 2008.
Bernard Berrian was drafted by Chicago in the third round of the NFL draft in 2004 and was the best WR the Bears had in a long time.
In 2007, which was his last year in a Bears uniform, he had his best season, catching 71 passes for 951 yards and five TDs. His 951 yards receiving were good enough to rank him 13th all-time in Bears history.
He led the team in catches 10 times that season and receiving yardage in eight of them. Berrian had the best season in 2007 for any Bears receiver since 2002, when Marty Booker went for over 1,000 yards receiving.
He seemed to be peaking, and many times it takes young WRs three or four years to really breakout.
So with the conventional wisdom of GM Jerry Angelo, it seemed time to let Berrian walk. Chicago failed to match division rival Minnesota's offer following the 2007 season and Bernard was a Viking.
For good measure, Berrian decided to rub Angelo's nose in it, and when the Vikings came to Chicago on Nov. 31, he tied an NFL record by catching a 99-yard TD pass. Berrian has continued to blossom for the Vikings and led the NFL last season with an average reception of 20.1 yards.
Bernard also did something last year that not even Minnesota future Hall of Famers Randy Moss and Cris Carter ever accomplished. He caught three TD passes that were over 80 yards.
Why Angelo ever decided we didn't need Berrian anymore is beyond any sane thought. If it wasn't bad enough that we lost our best young WR, we get to have the pleasure of him torching us twice a year with our division rival Minnesota.
So that pretty much brings us up to speed with the recent history of the WR position in Chicago.
Before the start of the 2008 season, Angelo decided to make up for the loss of Muhammad and Berrian by bringing back former Bear WR Marty Booker and signing Brandon Lloyd.
Lloyd ended up having the better season of the two (if you could call it that), and finished with 26 catches for 364 yards and two TDs. Booker caught only 14 passes for 211 yards and two TDs.
To say that these two guys didn'y exactly set the world on fire would be the understatement of the year.
Following the season, both were released, and that brings us to our current group of WRs in Chicago.
The Bears are currently led by WR Devin Hester, whom they drafted in the second round out of Miami in 2006.
He was originally drafted as a cornerback and played there before switching to WR before the 2007 season. Hester is the most electrifying returner in the NFL and scored 12 kick return TDs in his first two seasons with the Bears.
After making the switch to WR in 2007, Hester caught 20 passes for 299 yards and two TDs despite having a limited role.
In 2008, which was his first season as a full time WR, Hester improved, posting 52 catches for 665 yards and three TDs. Hester began to emerge during the second half of last season, catching 25 passes for 347 yards in the final six games after compiling 26 receptions for 318 yards in his first nine contests.
His production improved after he gained a firmer grasp of the Bears' offense. If the Bears are going to be successful this season, Hester's continued improvement will be the key.
Without a true deep threat, emerging RB Matt Forte will face wave after wave of eight-man fronts.
When asked of his continued development he said, "It is important for me to play like a No. 1 receiver, that’s my biggest goal. I feel like I have the ability to play as a No. 1 receiver, and I’m feeling real good and confident."
As of today, last year's third round pick from Vanderbilt, Earl Bennett, will be given every chance to start opposite Hester. Bennett had a tremulous rookie year in which he failed to catch a single pass.
Bennett had an outstanding collegiate career and finished as the all-time leader in SEC history, with 236 receptions in just three seasons.
He is the only player to ever catch more than 75 passes in three consecutive seasons in the SEC. Bennett finished tied for second in Commodore history with 20 TD catches, and owns three out of five of their largest receiving yardage games ever by a WR.
Bennett was also named a second team All-American after his junior year when he decided to leave early and join the NFL.
His continued development will also be key, and when asked about his disappointing rookie season he had this to say, "When I first got [the playbook], it was a challenge I must say."
“It was by far the most plays I’ve seen in my life. But right now I feel like I’ve got a good grasp on it. I feel real comfortable with the playbook. I could just about play any position on the field.”
Among Chicago's best pass catching options last season were the TEs Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark.
Olsen was second on the team in receptions behind Forte with 54 catches for 574 yards and a team-high five TD receptions. Olsen was the Bears' first round draft choice in the 2007 draft out of Miami.
In 2007, he and Clark combined for 936 receiving yards, which was a Bears record for TEs. Olsen is a huge target at 6'5", 255 pounds and appears to be on the verge of becoming a regular at the Pro Bowl.
Clark signed with the Bears as a free agent in 2003 and has been one of the most consistent targets for Bears QBs since his arrival. He leads all NFL TEs over the past two seasons with a 13.2 yards per catch average, and he surpassed the 3,000 yard mark in 2007, something that only 10 other active TEs can claim.
His importance to Chicago can be summed up by the fact that, since his arrival in 2003, he has led the team in receptions and TDs, while ranking third in overall catches.
The Bears havn't had this kind of production from a TE since Mike Ditka manned the position some 40 plus years ago.
Besides the TEs and the projected starting WRs, the Bears are pretty thin.
Rasheid Davis will return as the slot receiver; he had a decent season last year, catching 35 passes for 445 yards and two TDs. Past Davis are a group of unknowns who have bounced around various practice squads in the NFL.
With the looming lack of OTs, the Bears will probably be looking for a tackle in the first round of the upcoming draft. Prior to this crisis, they were thought to be strongly considering a WR and could still go that route.
If Jeremey Maclin were to fall to the Bears at 18 he would be hard to pass up.
Other names floating around are Darrius Heyward-Bey and Hakeem Nicks. Both are big receivers and DHB is an absolute speedster who ran a 4.25 40 at the combine.
Chicago was in North Carolina last week for Nicks' pro day and are rumored to be very high on the sure-handed receiver. Former Bears offensive coordinator John Shoop is currently holding the same position at UNC and has been in contact with Bears scouts pertaining to Nicks.
If Chicago waits until their second round pick to address the WR position, the pickings may be slim. Kenny Britt and Brian Robinske are projected to go late first or early second, and if one of them were to fall to 49th Chicago would be ecstatic.
Beyond them, there is a rather large drop-off at the position and the Bears could find themselves in another situation like last year with Bennett.
With Troy Holt still looking for a new team, he seems like someone who would draw interest from Chicago, but Angelo seems to be moving toward youth, and the 32-year-old Holt probably isn't in his plans.
Whether it be through the draft or free agency, Chicago will most definitely be adding some players to their WR corps.
Up next in the eight-part series, my partner Joey Garcia will be breaking down the Bears' QBs. If you missed the first two parts of the series I would encourage you to give them a read. I have provided the links to them below.
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