Offensive coordinator Mike Martz knows one thing for sure about the 2010 Bears: The young wide receivers will make an impact.
For the most part, it's an inexperienced group, long on potential and game-breaking speed but, so far, short on consistent production. Martz believes that will change this season.
"I love our receivers," Martz said at the conclusion of last weekend's rookie minicamp at Halas Hall. "I think that our receiver corps will be the strength of this team. You can put that in granite. I can promise you that one. There's not very many things I would say are un-retractable, but that one is pretty strong. This will be the strength of this football team. That's a terrific group."
And that's a pretty strong endorsement for a group that has never had a member catch more than 57 passes in a season, accumulate more than 757 receiving yards or score more than five receiving touchdowns.
As recently as one year ago, the group of Devin Hester (the old man of the group at 27), Earl Bennett (23), Johnny Knox (23) and Devin Aromashodu (25) had a total of had a total of nine NFL starts.
But Bennett emerged as a 54-catch, 717-yard receiver last season after not catching a single pass as a rookie in 2008. Knox, a lightly regarded fifth-round pick from Abilene Christian, caught 45 passes for 527 yards and five touchdowns. Hester was on pace for a 1,000-yard season and, despite a late-season swoon, still finished with career bests of 57 catches and 757 yards. Aromashodu didn't get much of a chance until the final month of the season, but he responded with 20 catches for 282 yards and four touchdowns in the final four games.
The tight end position is a little more uncertain, but more so because of uncertainty about roles than lack of talent.
Former Rams and Chargers tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, the 6-2, 295-pound road grader, was brought in as the extra offensive lineman that Martz needs in his scheme. But talented pass-catching tight end Greg Olsen has become one of the Bears' more potent offensive weapons and Desmond Clark is still a solid two-way performer, more than capable as a blocker and receiver as he enters his 12th season.
But Martz has generally not made the tight end an integral part of his explosive passing attacks, and if Olsen is to remain a factor in the offense, he will have to block. If he can do that, Martz says he will find a way to use him in the offense.
TE Greg Olsen
Getty Images: Andy Lyons
"Good players at any position, you find a way to get them the ball," Martz said. "You take advantage of their strength. This is a system that allows you to bend to what you have. When you get a guy like Greg, he has to get grounded in the running game, obviously. But there are some things we'll do with him that we haven't been able to do before. It's exciting for me because, as a coach, you get the chance to explore some different avenues, plus you can have him on the field where he's almost a third receiver on first down. It's unlimited."
But any tight end in Martz's offense has to be able to block first before he becomes a part of the passing game.
"Before you even go there, you have to get down to the basics of putting your hand on the ground, coming off the ball and sustaining a block," Martz said. "And if a tight end can't do that, you've got to wonder. And [Olsen] can certainly do that. He's proven he can do that. We've just got to get him involved in that. It's easy for him to get into the passing game. He's certainly capable of putting his hand on the ground and throwing a good block."
He'll have to be if he wants to get the ball in Martz's offense.
NOTES AND QUOTES
Tim Ruskell, who was announced last Friday as the Bears' new director of player personnel will, in essence, handle the jobs that Bobby DePaul and Greg Gabriel did previously.
DePaul was the Bears' director of pro personnel until Feb. 15, when he was relieved of those duties. Last Tuesday, Gabriel, the director of college scouting, was told he would not be rehired for the 2010 season. Both were hired by Jerry Angelo on June 19, 2001, shortly after he became the team's general manager.
Now those duties have been merged into one job: Ruskell's.
"We will not have a director of college [scouting] or a director of pro [personnel]," Angelo said. "So Tim will oversee all matters in personnel."
Ruskell, 53, does not see the dual role as daunting.
"I don't think it's that big of a deal," he said. "As the general manager (for the previous five years with the Seattle Seahawks) and as the assistant GM in Atlanta (2004), that is kind of what I did. I was in both areas, whereas, prior to my director of player personnel job in Tampa (2001-03), I was just on the college side. So I have been ingrained in both for the last 10, 12 years, so it just feels natural to me to be involved in both."
Ruskell has been involved in NFL personnel – and friends with Angelo – for 23 years. Their association began with Tampa Bay, when Angelo was the Buccaneers director of player personnel (1987-2000), while Ruskell was a regional scout (1987-91) and then director of college scouting (1992-2000). He succeeded Angelo as the Bucs' director of player personnel when Angelo took the Bears' job as general manager in May of 2001.
"Tim and I have had a long-standing relationship starting back at Tampa," Angelo said. "He brings a plethora of knowledge. He's worked at every level: scout, director and general manager. So he's done a lot of things that will be a great asset to the club."
Although he wasn't asked, Angelo refuted any notion that Ruskell's hiring was based on their friendship.
"This is about making us a better organization," Angelo said. "I would never have brought anybody in here just to bring somebody in. I think he'll be a great fit."
Ruskell said his assimilation into the organization would be eased by his familiarity with many of his co-workers, including coach Lovie Smith, who was the Bucs' linebackers coach from 1996-2000.
"I think I know just about every one of the scouts," Ruskell said. "I've got to get to know the pro [personnel] guys a little bit better. But having that relationship already established and having worked with some of those guys, I just think it tears down a lot of the barriers you have to fight through and get right to the matters at hand."
The Bears' college scouts and assistant pro personnel director Kevin Turks and pro scout Denard Wilson will all report to Ruskell, who in turns reports to Angelo in a more streamlined line of communication.
"He's done all those jobs," Angelo said of Ruskell's experience on the pro and college side of personnel. "It's easy in some regards because there's less communication and it makes it easier in terms of a chain of command." ...
It's a whole new ballgame for sixth-round pick Dan LeFevour, the record-setting quarterback from Central Michigan and Benet Academy.
He's learning a new offense with the Bears and re-learning how to take the snap from under center, which he hadn't done since his high school days. It's not an overnight process, which Martz fully understands.
"Whatever you did in the past has no bearing on today," he said after last weekend's rookie minicamp. "They've got to learn a whole new way of offense, a different way of looking at things. Everything is different, no matter what your background or how successful. He's come here, obviously, with a completely open mind, which is terrific. So he's very, very easy to coach. He's like a sponge. He's trying his best if he doesn't do it right. He's a long way's away."
Operating out of the shotgun at CMU, LeFevour became the only player in NCAA history to throw for more than 12,000 yards and run for more than 2,500. Now he's adapting to a different situation.
"It's a lot to pick up," he said. "It's a lot to learn, but it's exciting and it's a great opportunity for me. I'm looking forward to the challenge and every day just hoping to get a little bit better." ...
Jay Cutler has never missed an NFL game because of injury, but that doesn't mean the Bears aren't a little apprehensive about the possibility of playing without him.
Backup Caleb Hanie is in his third year in the system, but he has thrown just seven NFL passes. Brett Basanez, last year's No. 3, has thrown 11 NFL passes, all in his rookie season of 2006 with the Panthers. So Martz was asked if the Bears need an experienced veteran backup behind Cutler.
"It makes you a little nervous, doesn't it?" Martz said. "I think Caleb is going to be a real good player, but you really don't know."
Kurt Warner lacked NFL experience when he put up huge numbers in Martz's offense with the Rams, but there was a difference.
"He played in (NFL) Europe, and we looked at all his Europe stuff, so we kind of had a feel for him under pressure with blitzes and things like that," Martz said. "I think Caleb will be all right. [A veteran] just kind of gives you that insurance and pads it a little bit. I think from that aspect it would make us all feel a little bit easier with a veteran, but you just never know." ...
Fourth-round pick Corey Wootton had 10 sacks as a junior at Northwestern before tearing up his knee, but he said the most important lessons he learned from defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli last weekend were still about rushing the passer.
"He's all about pass rush, and that's something we didn't stress as much in college," Wootton said. "But here in the NFL, you get paid because you can rush the passer. So that's all we've been working on, just pass rush and learning about flipping your hips, hand quickness, all these drills. So it was a great weekend." ...
Without pads or full contact, it's difficult to evaluate linemen at this point in the offseason, but 6-8, 338-pound seventh-round offensive tackle J'Marcus Webb has already made an impression.
"He's big, and he's a big athlete," Smith said. "That's what we're able to see. He can move. He's a knee-bender and has great size. He's anxious. He's been picking up things fairly well. You can't get too high or too low on these type of practices. But what you don't want to see, as far as a lineman, is a big, stiff guy that can't move. You definitely won't say that about him. He's a big athlete."
QUOTE TO NOTE
"I'm coming in there to roll up my sleeves and help in any way that I can and hit the ground running." – New director of player personnel Tim Ruskell.
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