- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Chicago Bears reporter
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This is the third installment of a 10-part series that reviews every Bears position group on offense and defense, while also taking a quick look at potential free agent targets and the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.
The fantasies recently shared over Twitter between Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and Miami Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall about a possible reunion surely sparked optimism about the club’s future at what’s been an underachieving position in recent years.
But don’t expect Chicago to make a move to land Marshall. That deal might be too difficult for the Bears to swing, but the team still plans this offseason to extend every effort to finally give Cutler -- who will have only one year left on his contract after the upcoming season -- the weapons he needs.
"I will say this: What is going to be targeted [are] good football players, producers, dynamic playmakers that can help this football team grow," new general manager Phil Emery said. "[We want to] help the players that are here, and surround them with more weapons, more people that can make plays, and help this football team in its march towards championships."
Considering the Bears' leader in receptions -- running back Matt Forte -- doesn't play the receiver position, it’s quite clear that’s where the team needs to upgrade with the "dynamic playmakers" that Emery discussed.
The team’s preference is to do that through the draft. But the severe talent deficiency at the position will likely force the Bears to attack the problem from multiple fronts, meaning the NFL draft in April and pro free agency a month before that.
The Bears are well positioned in terms of salary cap space to make moves, and new offensive coordinator Mike Tice has been vocal about the need to add a legitimate No. 1 receiver to properly execute the team’s new system. By adding more targets -- especially a No. 1 that always has to be accounted for in coverage -- the Bears would be able to line up players such as Earl Bennett and Devin Hester in different spots on the field to take advantage of one-on-one matchups.
“We do need a [receiver] that when he gets one-on-one coverage, he has to win way more than he loses,” Tice said. “Moving forward, we’re going to evaluate the guys we have and how we’ve used them in the past. Our scouting department will do a great job -- whether it’s our pro personnel department or college scouting department -- in finding that guy or guys that are going to be able to let us implement this system, this process.”
THE CURRENT ROSTER
Johnny Knox: Finished the 2011 season ranked second in the NFL in yards per catch (19.6 yards), led the team in receiving yards (727) and was tied for second in receptions. But a devastating back injury on Dec. 18 casts doubt on Knox’s potential availability for 2012. Having undergone a vertebral fusion procedure, Knox will have to wear a back brace until mid-March, and his timeline for recovery could extend beyond six months, according to multiple sources.
Roy Williams: Williams came on toward the end of the season, and two of his three best performances of the year came over the last two games in which he caught a combined 10 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown. Early indications pointed to the Bears bringing Williams -- an unrestricted free agent -- back in 2012 with a cap-friendly contract. But the regime change with Emery now as the GM could change the team’s thinking. Williams believes he deserves at least an opportunity to go to training camp to compete for a spot.
Dane Sanzenbacher: An undrafted rookie, Sanzenbacher started off strong by catching 19 passes over the first seven games for three touchdowns with Earl Bennett out of the lineup. Once Bennett returned, Sanzenbacher played six consecutive games with no catches from Nov. 7 to Dec. 11. Sanzenbacher’s promising rookie start was plagued by dropped passes (5). Depending on what the team does in free agency and the draft, Sanzenbacher could have a hard time making the 2012 roster.
Devin Hester: Nagging injuries limited Hester’s production on offense and in the return game. Over a three-game stretch from Oct. 10-23, Hester caught 14 passes only to finish with one reception over the next four weeks. Scheduled to earn $1.646 million (the salary includes escalators -- that likely haven’t been reached -- worth up to $3.554 million based on his production) Hester hasn’t yet developed into the receiver the Bears had hoped for. But an infusion of new talent at the position might change Hester’s role by putting him in the slot or other spots more, which might increase his production.
Earl Bennett: An internal-body injury suffered on Sept. 18 knocked Bennett out of the lineup for five games. But he returned Nov. 7 to put together three strong performances in Bears' victories (14 catches for 251 yards and a TD). Having developed strong chemistry with Cutler dating all the way back to college, Bennett watched his production dip dramatically after the quarterback suffered a thumb injury that knocked him out of the final six games. Still, Bennett remains the most dangerous of the team’s receiving threats, and was rewarded with a contract extension toward the end of the season.
Max Komar: Added to the Bears active roster on Dec. 19, and played in only one game on special teams against the Green Bay Packers on Christmas. Komar possesses some elusiveness, but could find a difficult time making the roster if he sticks around long enough to go to training camp.
Jonathan Haggerty: Signed to the practice squad on Dec. 20 and is considered a long shot to make the 2012 team.
Kevin Jurovich: Added to the practice squad on Dec. 21, but likely won’t make it to training camp with the team.
Bears free agents: Williams
POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS
WHY MEACHEM MIGHT MAKE SENSE
Dynamic playmakers such as Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson, Buffalo’s Steve Johnson and Kansas City’s Dwayne Bowe likely won’t see the free agent market because of franchise tags or the sides working out new agreements. And it’s highly unlikely Vincent Jackson or Colston will either.
New Orleans is trying to work out an extension for quarterback Drew Brees, and once that’s done, it’s likely the Saints will turn their attention to Colston. So they’ll ultimately wind up having to part ways with Meachem. But don’t let Meachem’s production in 2011 (40 catches, 620 yards and 6 TDs) fool you. His lack of mega numbers stems in part from New Orleans’ spread-the-wealth system, and the fact he often became the clear-out man to open up things underneath for tight end Jimmy Graham.
Meachem’s explosive deep speed is part of the reason he became somewhat of a decoy. But he possesses the physical attributes to thrive in the right situation.
Michael C. Wright continues his series with a look at the Bears receivers.