Bears positional analysis: Wide receivers
Bears positional analysis: Wide receivers
Ninth in a 10-part series
Marty Booker's legend grew again at the end of the 2010 season.
OK, maybe the former Pro Bowl receiver isn't a giant in terms of the Bears' record books. But he sure qualifies as an obstacle because no matter what they do in an era when passing is what makes offenses go, the Bears can't seem to get past Booker.
Booker was the last Bears wide receiver to post a 1,000-yard season, doing so in 2001 and '02. Consider that Booker and Dick Gordon are the only Bears wide receivers to be named to the Pro Bowl during the Super Bowl era (Johnny Knox and Devin Hester were selected as returners the last two seasons), and you get a better indication of how lacking the team has been at the position. It certainly doesn't come as a surprise. Receiver production goes hand-in-hand with the production of the quarterback, and the Bears' failures at that position are well documented.
Knox had a chance to crack 1,000 yards, needing only 40 in the regular-season finale at Green Bay where he was shut out. The position was supposed to explode this season with the arrival of Mike Martz and his high-powered offense. Consider that in the previous 10 years of directing an offense, Martz's No. 1 wide receiver averaged 88.7 receptions and 1,256 yards. The No. 2 wide receiver averaged 68.6 receptions and 1,037 yards. Knox was the only Bears receiver to top 50 catches with 51 and he gained 960 yards. Bernard Berrian is the last Bear to eclipse 68 receptions, getting 71 in 2007.
The position remains a hot-button topic for fans who clamor for a big target on the outside. Martz has had that player only once, though, and that was when Calvin Johnson was drafted in Detroit. The St. Louis Rams never had a player who fit that mold. But they did have precise route runners who were in the right place at the right time. Receivers who could break down zone coverage and beat man coverage.
The Packers throttled the Bears receivers in the NFC Championship Game with an excellent secondary that is something the Bears will have to contend with again. But Jay Cutler missed Hester for two touchdowns in the first half when the receiver got open deep and that only can be blamed on the quarterback.
The Bears have invested in the position once, signing Muhsin Muhammad in free agency in 2005. General manager Jerry Angelo always has been hesitant to draft a wide receiver in the first round because of the bust factor. However, had he not swung the trade for Cutler in 2009, it's believed he would have selected a receiver in the first round.
Roll call: Devin Aromashodu, Earl Bennett, Rashied Davis, Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, Andy Fantuz.
2010 overview: Devin Aromashodu looked like he was on the fast track to stardom based on how the 2009 season ended and how much Cutler liked throwing him the ball. He caught 22 passes for 282 yards in the final four games of '09 with four touchdowns, all against NFC North opponents. His 150-yard performance on "Monday Night Football" against the Minnesota Vikings looked like a coming out party.
Aromashodu was targeted a team-high 10 times in the season opener against the Detroit Lions, when he made five receptions for 71 yards. Then he disappeared fast enough to qualify for a mug shot on the side of a milk carton. The 6-2, 201-pound Aromashodu did a Houdini vanishing act. There was discussion that he hadn't learned the slot. Maybe he wasn't in the right place all the time. Whatever the case, he was sent to the bench where he remained for most of the rest of the season (he caught only five passes the rest of the way).
Knox picked up where he left off as a rookie in 2009, but he rarely had the kind of big game that turned heads. In eight regular-season games, he had three receptions or less. He's a terrific vertical threat and his 18.8-yard average ranked fifth in the league. He was also tied for 10th with 17 receptions for 20 or more yards. The 960 yards he had ranked 13th in franchise history, but again that's a reflection of bad history more than anything else. Knox is a speedy player with decent hands, but like the players who have come before him, he was probably miscast as a No. 1 receiver. Put Knox opposite a more complete receiver who can be just as effective inside as he is outside, and Knox probably would fare better.
While some made the error of continuing to hail Hester as a No. 1 receiver, he'd clearly shown that wasn't a role for him coming into this season. His production dropped significantly under Martz as he went from 57 receptions in 2009 to 40. Hester's average of 11.9 yards per reception was a career low and an example of how he probably wasn't used to his maximum ability.
Earl Bennett emerged as a consistent player and was steady with 46 receptions for 561 yards. Rashied Davis played sparingly with most of his action coming when a minor ankle injury sidelined Bennett. His greatest contributions again came on special teams.
Free agency/draft need: This is going to depend a great deal on how the organization defines the performances of the receivers vs. the performance of Cutler. How do they assess the quarterback and the parts he had to work with and how is the pass blocking figured into the equation? No matter what opinion they reach, what is clear here is the Bears lack a receiver that strikes fear into an opponent when it prepares a game plan. Yes, Knox's speed must be countered but the Bears don't have a game-changing wideout, a pure No. 1. They aren't easy to find and there might be only a dozen in the league, but with a quarterback they believe is elite, why not do whatever it takes to get him one of those targets? Cutler doesn't have the kind of player that on third-and-6 everyone in the stadium knows is going to get the ball. That's the kind of player who can move the chains even when the defense knows the ball is going his way. That being said, Cutler needs to be better because he can raise the level of play of his receivers by himself.
Looking ahead: Wanting a No. 1 target and being able to get one are two different things. If the Bears can find that player and shift Knox into a No. 2 role while making Bennett and Hester complementary players, receivers coach Darryl Drake finally will have a unit that's worthy of real attention in a league that is all about throwing the football. If the Bears introduce a young player to the mix and are forced to rely on the cast of veterans, production might not be too different. Knox potentially could make the jump to 65 receptions for 1,110 yards, but that's a projection. Aromashodu is a restricted free agent and he figures to want out more than they might want him out. Davis will be unrestricted and he may have to seek work elsewhere. So, the Bears figure to be looking for additions besides Canadian Football League import Andy Fantuz, who signed a reserve/futures contract last week. It's just a matter of when and where.
Bottom line: The Bears continue to value their receivers more than others do. They lack a difference-maker at the position and if they want to see Cutler flourish, it's a position that will have to be addressed.
Next: Special teams.