In advance of Chicago Bears training camp, ESPNChicago.com's experts are taking a look at some of the key issues the team must confront in the coming weeks.
Jeff Dickerson: Perhaps no single Bears position received more attention in the offseason than wide receiver, a group long believed to be one of the weakest in the NFL. The boldest move made by new Bears general manager Phil Emery to date was trading for Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall, who enjoyed great success with quarterback Jay Cutler when the two were in Denver. But the receiver makeover didn’t end with Marshall. The Bears used a second-round draft choice on South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery, considered by many to have been one of the top collegiate receivers in 2010 before seeing his numbers dip during his last year with the Gamecocks. The Bears also added Eric Weems and Devin Thomas, primarily special teamers, to a mix that already included Earl Bennett, Devin Hester and Dane Sanzenbacher.
With receiver expectations at an all-time high, there are no excuses for the group not to produce.
Marshall needs to stay out of the trouble and put up his standard All-Pro-type numbers. Bennett, who figures to work extensively in the slot, needs to assume the role of Eddie Royal, who had a monster year when paired with Cutler and Marshall in Denver in 2008. Jeffery, another big target with great hands, must be able to push through the nagging injuries that kept him off the field for a chunk of the offseason program. And Hester needs to take advantage of whatever plays the Bears design for him throughout the season.
If all this happens with Cutler at the helm, this could end up being the best and most productive group of receivers in franchise history.
Michael C. Wright: The addition of Marshall and Jeffery doesn’t suddenly make Chicago’s receivers a formidable group. Nobody wants to hear it, but it’s true. The group’s worth still has to be proven on the field.
But it’s difficult to predict the group’s production for 2012 because every receiver performed in a different scheme than the one the club will utilize this season.
Struggling with nagging injuries in 2011, Hester caught just 46 percent of his passes with five drops en route to his worst season in three years in terms of production (26 catches for 369 yards). Still, the coaches insist they’ve misused Hester and have put together some packages designed to get him the ball more effectively in 2012.
Bennett missed time with a significant injury in 2011, but returned to put up big numbers before Cutler suffered a thumb injury. Bennett’s chemistry with Cutler along with Marshall’s should go a long way toward the group starting fast.
Marshall has put up five straight 1,000-yard seasons. Last year, Marshall caught six passes in the red zone with four going for touchdowns. So it’s clear the Bears found a legitimate red zone target, but there still have to be concerns about his volatile past and how he’ll mesh with teammates, including Cutler, who worked with him in Denver.
A rookie, Jeffery seems to be the wild card. First, he hasn’t yet played an NFL down. Secondly, his production in college wasn’t consistent. Jeffery caught 67 percent of passes thrown his way in 2010 for 17.2 yards per catch, but those numbers fell in 2011 (he caught 56 percent of passes for a 15.6-yard average).