Bears receiving corps a pleasant surprise
The Bears haven’t had a 1,000-yard receiver in seven years.
The Cardinals had three last year alone, and Larry Fitzgerald added another 546 yards in the playoffs.
“You’ve got one of those guys or you don’t have one of those guys,” Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said. “It’s kind of cut-and-dried. We don’t have Larry Fitzgerald on this team. We’ve got Devin and Earl and some other guys. We’re going to make it work with them.”
It’s cut-and-dried with Arizona, which plays the Bears (4-3) Sunday. It was also that way in Denver last year when Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal caught 2,245 yards worth of Cutler passes.
But it remains up in the air in Chicago.
That’s a good thing. Two of Chicago’s three receivers hadn’t caught a pass before this season. The third was a still-raw converted kick returner. But Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and rookie fifth-round pick Johnny Knox have all exceeded expectations.
“We’re fine in that area,” Cutler said. “We’ve got three or four very reliable, if not above average, guys who can go out there and make things happen.
“They are a young group. That’s maybe the only fault, but they are not playing like they are young.”
Hester seldom gets credit from critics for being a No. 1 receiver, but is on pace to have 1,038 yards this year. He’s also been at his best when Chicago needed him most. Cutler has thrown to Hester 11 times on third down, with Hester catching eight of them and all eight producing first downs. That 72.7-percent rate is tied for third in the NFL.
“Devin has been an all-around receiver,” offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. “He’s catching the ball well on third down. He’s catching the ball in traffic. He’s catching the ball inside and outside. We’ve got to continue to get him the ball.”
Hester ranks 21st in the NFL with 454 yards. That’s only 55 yards less than the All-Pro Fitzgerald. And the Cardinals have thrown 27 times more to Fitzgerald (72) than the Bears have to Hester (45).
“He hasn’t been at the position long enough to have perfected it yet, but he gets a little bit closer each week,” coach Lovie Smith said. “One thing we’ve always known is Devin is special with his hands on the ball. He is a No. 1 receiver.”
Bennett and Knox are also still developing. Knox had 152 yards his first two games, but hasn’t topped 45 yards since. Still, with 310 yards on 24 catches, he’s on track to have one of the best rookie receiving seasons in team history.
“I always thought I could do well in this league,” Knox said. “I’m just getting put in the right positions at the right time to do this early in my career.”
Bennett (334 yards on 25 catches) has seven catches of at least 20 yards, only three off the NFL lead, after being labeled a possession receiver.
“I’m just making plays,” Bennett said. “That’s what it comes down to, whether it’s a 40-yard gain or a 10-yard gain. As long as you are moving the chains, it’s pretty cool. A lot of people label me as a possession receiver. Whatever I’m given is cool. I just try to prove people wrong.”
All three are proving people wrong so far. A year after no Bear receiver had 700 yards, the Bears went younger and have all three receivers on pace to top that mark.
“Johnny, Devin and me, we just try to make plays when our number is called,” Bennett said. “Each one of us feels like we belong here. That’s how we play. We play with confidence.”
Matt Trowbridge can be reached at (815) 987-1383 firstname.lastname@example.org.