Saving the biggest puzzle for last, we conclude our position-by-position training camp previews with, what else, the wide receivers.
Projected starters: Devin Hester, 5-11, 190, 4th season, Miami; Earl Bennett, 6-0, 204, 2nd season, Vanderbilt
Devin Aromashodu, 6-2, 201, 3rd season, Auburn
John Broussard, 6-1, 181, 2nd season, San Jose State
Rashied Davis, 5-9, 187, 5th season, San Jose State
Juaquin Iglesias, 6-1, 205, Rookie, Oklahoma
Derek Kinder, 6-1, 202, Rookie, Pittsburgh
Johnny Knox, 6-0, 185, Rookie, Abilene Christian
Eric Peterman, 6-1, 202, Rookie Northwestern
Brandon Rideau, 6-3, 198, 3rd season, Kansas
Projected depth chart
WR: Hester, Davis, Knox
WR: Bennett, Iglesias, Rideau
2009 salary cap numbers
Devin Aromashodu $465,200
Earl Bennett $595,409
John Broussard $390,200
Rashied Davis $1,581,666
Devin Hester $6,885,833
Juaquin Iglesias $554,900
Derek Kinder $319,416
Johnny Knox $361,060
Eric Peterman $310,666
Brandon Rideau $465,200
Number of wide receivers on the roster at the start of the 2008 season: 6
Projected number of wide receivers on 2009 roster at start of the season: 6
The skinny: From general manager Jerry Angelo on down the Bears know they don't have this position where it needs to be. Angelo acknowledged the Bears would have used their first-round draft pick on a wide receiver had they not traded the pick to acquire Jay Cutler. Then, he tried to trade for Anquan Boldin when the draft began. Finally, the Bears did enough snooping around on Plaxico Burress to earn their Jr. Inspector Clouseau badge. Think right about now Burress wishes now he'd done his couple months in the pokey? It looks highly unlikely that Burress will help Cutler and the Bears this season and that puts the onus on Cutler to make some of these players better. Ideally, the Bears would be in a situation where they would only keep five receivers on the roster, but if Iglesias (third round) and Knox (fifth round) earn roster spots, as expected, they'll probably need to try to cover for the inexperience with numbers. Say what you want, and we're not demeaning any of the players at this position, but it's a quantity over quality matter here. Quite frankly, that could help Rideau in his bid to win a job.
So how much better can Cutler make the Bears' receivers? There is certainly something to a quarterback making a wide receiver better but he's not the difference between Eddie Royal's 91 catches as a rookie last season in Denver and Bennett's 0 catches as a rookie last season. Cutler isn't going to clone Brandon Marshall in the Olivet Nazarene dorm rooms, either. He can make the receivers better and that starts with them developing a trust and a rapport. Cutler has to know what the receiver is going to do before he does it. That comes with reps, lots of them.
Hester performed better in the final third of last season, but the idea that he's going to become a No. 1 wide receiver is a stretch. How many wideouts are really in that category? Ten? Maybe 12? Hester isn't going to approach the kind of production and dominance you see out of an Andre Johnson or a Larry Fitzgerald. That's not the kind of player he is. That doesn't mean he doesn't have the skill and opportunity (see Cutler) to be productive and good this season. That is provided the Bears have enough other targets around him to spread defenses out. Tight end Greg Olsen should do a nice job occupying the middle third of the field. It's up to someone on the other side of Hester to produce. Bennett gets the first chance by default, and he's got a track record with Cutler from the receiver's freshman season at Vanderbilt. It's going to be interesting to watch them work together, and you'll get a sense for how things are coming along in preseason.
Davis was completely out of position last season through no fault of his own, and the Bears would be best served to return him to the slot and leave him there. If he can get some confidence back in his game, he'll be able to make contributions. After that, it's a cast of completely unproven characters. Iglesias and Knox have draft status, as does the seventh rounder Kinder. No one seemed particularly wowed with Iglesias during the offseason program and Knox needs to prove his speed will translate when the pads come on. The good news, especially for Iglesias, is you can't put much of anything into the offseason workouts. Rideau received opportunities with the first team during OTA's and and that means nothing now. If he can continue to get those chances and capitalize on them, he'll be able to play when it counts in preseason. Then it will matter. He led the league with three touchdowns in preseason last year and all that did was land him back on the practice squad. He's got good size and long arms and if he can play like a big target, he could emerge as a possible contributor.
The upside: If you're going to shoot big, shoot real big. The upside for Hester would have to be about 70-75 catches and eight to 10 touchdowns. That would probably exceed the expectations of most. The Bears would then get 40-50 receptions out of Bennett and find a reliable third target to come up with 20-25 catches. Factor in the tight ends and running back Matt Forte catching the ball out of the backfield, and Cutler has just had himself a solid season. Be realistic about the rookies. Keep in mind that the franchise record for receptions by a rookie wide receiver is 45 by Harlon Hill in 1954. Since then, Willie Gault in 1983 is the only rookie to reach 40 catches.
The downside: The Bears have lived the downside. They're acutely aware of what the downside looks like at this position. You should be too.
On the hot seat: Everyone but the players. Bennett is being thrust into a starting role that he really hasn't done anything to earn. If it doesn't pan out for him, or the other options that are tried, who is really to blame here? The Bears have done a haphazard job of finding players for the position, and they really haven't looked that hard since launching Muhsin Muhammad and declining to slap the franchise tag on Bernard Berrian. It would be unfair to place great expectations on this group because, you know what, we doubt there are many at Halas Hall with great expectations here. The Bears are hoping a Pro Bowl quarterback, a good tight end and a sound running game help them get by with these wide receivers.
Final thought: This is still the team that gets off the bus running, right?