The fan gauntlet is packed at Bears Training Camp in Burbonnais, Illinois. Fences lined with fans, young and old, waiting to catch a glimpse of this year's squad.
And then it starts.
Whispers turns to buzz, buzz turns to conversation, conversation quickly turns to shouting.
Who's that No. 10?
Neigh. Camp punter Richmond McGee continues his trot toward the field, unscathed by the sleight. One by one, his teammates follow him, in packs, in solidarity, and all the time to relentless praise from the fans—as best as they can, that is.
They know the big names. Uralcher always gets a good reception. Hester is an entity these days pushing the latest Under Armour. Heck, even Isarael Idonije is a fan favorite. Guys like McGee don't always get the recognition, but it's the thought that counts. One tends to appreciate 13K fans deep on a hot, biting day in Illinois.
But there is a changing of the guard. Or, more accurately, receiver. Among the sub six foot pass catchers stands the lanky Brandon Rideau. And wouldn't you know it, the Bears' faithful are taking notice.
"Brandon! Rideau!! Sign this," pleads a fan.
"Brandon Rideau, get em' today, buddy!" encourages another.
Sometimes, it takes a while to break in. For Rideau, three years. He's caught passes from Rex Grossman, Kyle Orton, and Brian Griese in his previous attempts at the roster.
Watching him, it's obvious he has NFL talent. His hands are natural, his motions are second nature and the work put into his craft is apparent on the field.
He is not new to this NFL thing either. The fourth-year veteran has seen every aspect of the league experience; camp body, practice squad player, and last season, a member of the 45-player roster on game day.
This year, he hopes to add to that: NFL starting receiver.
And if the Bears want to be the kind of offense they suggest with golden boy Jay Cutler, they'll entertain those same thoughts.
Consider that now, as we you read this in August, the Bears' starting receivers both measure in at just a shade under six feet. If nothing else, Rideau brings size that adds a complementary piece to the offense.
Starting Rideau obviously displaces another player, and therein lies the biggest advantage for the Bears.
Everyone who sets eyes on the Bears' most accomplished WR, Devin Hester, can tell you he is a shot of lightning in shoulder pads. A closer look reveals a skill set almost textbook for the slot position.
With a slot role, a more exclusive and situation sampled workload. Think third downs, bubble screens, reverses...you know, what the Bears said they were going to do with Hester? That should quiet those kick return theorists while also saving Hester some energy to get back to his record breaking ways.
However, at this point in his development as a wide receiver, the nuances of the position favor a more savvy, experienced receiver that serves as a safety blanket for Cutler. Brandon Stokely circa 2004, if you will.
The answer then becomes clear. Which receiver on the roster does Cutler trust the most? Who does Cutler know more than anyone on the roster? Who is the only guy that Cutler does not hesitate to "dog cuss?"
Ladies and gentleman, I give you Earl Bennett in the slot.
Well, Bennett in the slot, and Rideau on the outside.
The unproven, all-time SEC leader in receptions caught as many NFL passes last year as I did. That was written off by the staff as a learning curve, a red shirt year.
Bennett knows the route tree and has been arguably the most reliable WR in camp this year, outside of Rideau of course. His sure hands and knack for getting open at the right time screams clutch third down reception.
The slot alignment would further ease an essentially brand new transition to the NFL game. It would allow Bennett to stay away from press coverage and be free to just play, a factor Bennett cites for his new found confidence.
Also, with the extensive use of the double TE formation, Bennett would be used as a weapon and not as an every down guy. It would allow the bigger Rideau to take the brunt of the run blocking, over the middle work of first and second down, and the ever popular dummy routes.
There is virtually no NFL film for Cutler's current favorite wide receiver. Why would the Bears want to change that?
Unveil Bennett as a weapon. Use Rideau as the rock.
What happens from here remains to be seen. Whatever the final verdict may be, one thing is easy to see: Brandon Rideau has caught all the right eyes and balls in camp, and has seemingly played his way onto the roster. If a player's performance level indeed determines how much they play, then Rideau deserves to start.