Bears wide receivers coach Darryl Drake is adamant that this is the best group of pass catchers he has had since he joined the Bears in 2004.
"There's no doubt," Drake said, "I really do believe that."
Critics will contend that's like being the tallest midget on an elevator, but last year the Bears had three wide receivers with 45 or more catches for the first time in nine years. All three of those young players are back and could be challenged for playing time by other young players. Devin Hester led the group with 57 catches, Earl Bennett had 54 and Johnny Knox added 45 as a rookie. None of them should be close to peaking, since Hester is 27 and still perfecting the finer points of the position, while Bennett and Knox are just 23. Devin Aromashodu, who finished strong last season and will see more action this year, is 26. Juaquin Iglesias, who was lost in the shuffle last season as a rookie, is only 22 and trying to fight his way up the depth chart.
In the past decade or so, the Bears have had receivers that could stretch the field like Bernard Berrian, crafty veterans like Muhsin Muhammad and physical receivers that could exploit the middle of the field like Marty Booker.
But Drake believes that the current crop of pass catchers gives him more all-around talent than he's ever had in the past.
"We've got a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things," Drake said. "We've got guys who can be possession guys, we've got guys who can run and we've got guys who have got run-after-catch ability."
Most importantly, some of Drake's guys can do all of those things.
"Usually, in the past, we were lacking something," Drake said. "It may have been run-after-the-catch ability, where they may have had straight-line speed but we may have lacked run-after-the-catch. We may have had a possession guy, but we may not have had the straight-line speed. Now I think we've got a combination of all of them."
With offensive coordinator Mike Martz's emphasis on throwing the ball and his reputation as a passing-game wizard, combined with immensely talented Jay Cutler at quarterback, it would seem like the perfect mix for turning potential and raw talent into production and points. Cutler and his wideouts have now had more than a full year of working together, and they're more in sync than ever.
"Everyone's a little bit more comfortable," Cutler said. "That's probably the biggest difference. Everyone is a little bit older, a little bit more mature. Offensively, there's a little bit of a sense of urgency and a sense of excitement on the offensive side of the ball to go ahead and get this year started and crank it up with this new offense.
WR Devin Aromashodu
"Just working with those guys for a year, you see the dramatic growth that they've made."
One of the most interesting storylines of training camp and the preseason should be which of the wide receivers emerge as the main weapons in what's expected to be a high-powered passing game. Even in Martz's pass-heavy offense, there won't be room for more than three or four wide receivers to contribute on a regular basis. But having to decide playing time among several deserving players is the kind of dilemma Drake relishes.
"It's a good problem," he said. "You better have depth. Shoot, I would like to have 10 and [know] they could all play. I hope my job is so hard that I have to pick straws for guys to play. I want it to be difficult."
NOTES AND QUOTES
Tight end Greg Olsen, who led the Bears with 60 catches last season, had not made much of an impact as a receiver until Friday night's practice at Soldier Field. That was concern the minute Martz was hired as offensive coordinator because he doesn't have a history of utilizing the TE position in the passing game.
Olsen isn't panicking, although he is understandably tired of hearing the questions about his role.
"We've addressed this a ridiculous amount," said Olsen, who caught 114 passes for 1,186 yards and 13 touchdowns over the past two seasons. "It is what it is. The past has nothing to do with the guys that we have here. Coach Martz has said all along that the guys who show that they can help the team and make plays and do the thing they're asked to do are going to play." ...
Cutler explained Wednesday, the only day he talks, about his bullet pass Tuesday afternoon into the top of a VIP tent 30 feet wide of the sideline.
"It was hot out there," he said. "We're trying to make every play perfect. That's our goal offensively. Whenever we don't, I get frustrated, the older guys get frustrated and [center] Olin Kreutz gets mad. It's a good thing, though, because if we're just going out there and going through the motions, then we're doing things a little bit wrong."
The frustration seemed to have more to do with the offensive line's inability to handle the pass rush of the defensive line. Cutler said he's encouraged by the performance of the skill-position players.
"The receivers have looked great," Cutler said. "It's been a big question mark for [the media] for a long time, and those guys have come out and had a great camp. I think Greg has done a great job blocking. That's one of the things we were kind of questioning with him. We knew he could catch the ball, we knew he could run, but we had to get him in some different facets of the game and be able to keep him in there in some blocking situations, and he has done a great job of that." ...
In a perfect world, offensive line coach Mike Tice would have a room full of players with the same type of mentality that helped him have a 14-year playing career in the NFL as a no-nonsense, smash-mouth, lunch pail-type tight end. The tenacious Tice has also spent 14 years as a head coach, assistant head coach, offensive line coach and tight ends coach in the NFL.
Tice values aggressiveness on the O-line, and he'd like to see more of it from left tackle Chris Williams to go along with his improving skills.
"I'd like to see a little more tenacity there, but we can't change people's make-ups," Tice said. "Just because I'm a turd, doesn't mean all the players are going to be that way." ...
By now, everyone knows Julius Peppers is difficult to block, but Williams knows it better than anyone, considering he has to battle the five-time Pro Bowl defensive end every day in practice.
"He's so tough to block because he's as quick as any guy we've got, but he's [almost] 300 pounds," said the 6-6, 315-pound Williams. "His arms are long and, I mean, he's kind of a mutant. Every play he's got something different and he does a good job of feeding off of me, so if I make a mistake, he's going to take [advantage of] it, and that's what the good ones do." ...
In order for the offensive line to play better as a unit than it did last season, the Bears need two things to happen.
Frank Omiyale has to play better this year at right tackle than he did last year at left guard. And someone has to step up at left guard, where Josh Beekman is currently the starter but Johan Asiata and Lance Louis are contenders.
Tice believes Omiyale was miscast last season.
"I thought he was out of position for the most part at left guard," Tice said. "I felt he kind of had two seasons. He played early, sat a few games and then played late. I thought the second part he played better. Early in the season, he was lost. Later in the season, he was better."
QUOTE TO NOTE
"We've added some plays, and we've added a period here and there. Especially early on, we just want to get some things done." – Coach Lovie Smith on this year's longer practice sessions .
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