Countdown to Camp: Deep corps of receivers the strength of the team?

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This is Part 3 of the 10-part position analysis leading up to the start of the Bears’ 2010 training camp in Bourbonnais.

My, how things can change in a year. It was at this time last year that almost all football analysts, both locally and nationally, were suggesting that the Bears’ biggest weakness — or one of them, anyway — was wide receiver.

Through midseason last year, the receiving corps was turning heads and by season’s end, it was easily considered the most consistent unit on the team.

Fast forward to now and the receivers not only will be contributors but could be the strength of the team, at least according to new offensive coordinator Mike Martz. That’s what he said in May after the Bears concluded their rookie minicamp.

There’s reason for optimism as the Bears boast a deep corps of receivers. Depth at a position usually creates great competition and brings up the level of play in each player.

It all starts with Devin Hester, who arguably has improved each season that he’s been a wide receiver. He’s maturing as a person and learning more about the nuances of playing the position. When Martz was asked about Hester early on in his tenure as coordinator, Martz compared him to former Rams wide receiver Az Hakim, saying Hester could play the slot role perfectly. Since then, Martz has changed his tune and has faith in Hester to be a solid No. 1. Whether that was Lovie Smith speaking through Martz or that Hester’s performance in off-season workouts changed Martz’s opinion of him is a still a topic of debate.

After Hester, the depth chart becomes a little murky. Last year’s starter, Earl Bennett, was limited in off-season work while recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. Filling in for him was Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu, the two players likely to see the most work opposite Hester.

Knox was a fifth-round draft pick last year and came on from nowhere to surprise everybody. Not only was he successful on offense, but his kick return ability earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl after Minnesota’s Percy Harvin backed out. His natural speed is an asset in any offense, especially Martz’s, but he has reliable hands and he’s honing every facet of his game.

Aromashodu is considered the people’s choice, mostly because he was Jay Cutler’s choice. Cutler lobbied for Aromashodu to make the team last year during training camp and throughout the Bears’ disappointing season, Bears fans were asking why Aromashodu was not seeing the field. Cutler works well with big receivers and he and Aromashodu formed a good tandem in the preseason. The Bears elected to keep six receivers last year, Aromashodu one of them, and were fortunate that they did. Due to an injury to Hester, Aromashodu received playing time at the end of the year and caught 22 passes for 282 yards and 4 touchdowns in the last four games of the season.

Bennett is a wild card. He played neither poorly nor extraordinary but just might have lost his starting job due to injury. He doesn’t have a great speed so will have to rely on perfecting his hands and his route running to make an impact.

The two other players jostling for roster spots more than playing time are Rashied Davis and Juaquin Iglesias. Davis, the one-time Arena Football star and converted defensive back made a few clutch catches during the playoffs of the Bears’ 2006 Super Bowl season and then turned heads with a fantastic camp the ensuing off-season. Since then, he has fallen off the map and has just barely hung on to his roster spot because of his solid contribution on special teams. Iglesias, meanwhile, was a third-round draft pick last year but could not find the field while learning to make the transition from college to the pros. He was also buried on a surprisingly deep depth chart.

We won’t know until sometime midseason whether Martz was being honest with us or just using his proclamation as a motivational boost when he stated the receivers will be the strength of the team. But with how much the offense will be slinging the ball downfield, we know they’ll have every opportunity to prove Martz right.

Now they just have to step up and take advantage of it.

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