Next to the offensive line (or the secondary if you're this guy) no unit on the Bears has received as much flak the last few years as the wide receivers. It's true that they've not been a dominating unit. I always maintained, however, that the group the Bears had was good enough to win with. Obviously, since the team was 19-8 in Jay's last 27 games with this group of receivers, it was possible. However, life is much easier on a quarterback when he's got a true, reliable target like Brandon Marshall, the virtues of whom I've already espoused on this website. So why did Phil Emery finally decide to make the move for a real wide receiver (besides common sense)? Let's take a look:
#13 Johnny Knox: 37 receptions, 727 yards, 2 TDs, 19.6 YPC
For the second straight year, Johnny led the group in yards and tied for the lead in receptions, which he most likely would have won had he not gone down with one of the more gruesome looking injuries in Bears history.
Johnny made some progress before he went down, as the Chargers game and the Raiders game were two of the better games of his career, and in both he did some very un-Johnny Knox like things: adjusting to underthrown balls, fighting defensive backs, not quitting on routes. Unfortunately, the Chargers game also featured another Johnny Knox classic: falling down on a fucking slant route, and that, as we know, had fatal consequences for the season.
It's a shame that it seems Johnny won't be available in 2012. He was undoubtedly the most talented of the group the Bears threw out on the field in 2009-2011, but that was more of a curse than a blessing, really. In 2010 Jay forced a lot of balls Johnny's way when he just wasn't ready to be an every down target, and the combination of Jay's desperation and Johnny's shitty route running, terrible discipline, and frequent alligator-arms led to the most interceptions of any QB-WR duo in the NFL. This year, Johnny took his demotion in favor of Roy Williams quite well and earned his way back on the field, even if he had some very frustrating moments (his drop of a potential first down pass on 2nd and 17 late in the Packers game will stick in my mind forever). Hopefully someday we'll see what might become of him if Brandon Marshall is there to draw the attention that was just too much for Johnny to deal with.
#11 Roy Williams: 37 receptions, 507 yds, 2 TDs, 13.7 ypc.
I knew better. I fucking knew better. Oh how I loathed Roy Williams. How I loathed his first down gesture. How I loathed his empty boasts. How I loathed the fact that a 6'3'' wide receiver took a hit as well as a French tank. But alas, I tried to think positively when the Bears brought him aboard. "Look at his numbers with Martz in Detroit!" I did say. "Cutler will make him look good!" I did protest. And yes, like Johnny, there was a brief flash this season where Roy was playing rather well too, using his big body to pick up first downs, as in the Chargers game where he caught 6 balls and all 6 moved the chains.
Overall, though, Roy was everything his critics said he was. Soft, stupid, and lazy with hands of stone. From his first real preseason action against the Titans, when he let a ball go right through his hands for an interception, to pulling up lame without even taking a hit on a first down catch against the Falcons, to his many, many drops (10 total, including the one that donked off of his hands for an interception on what should have been the game tying TD against the Chiefs), Roy was a bust for the Bears and we will hopefully never see him again. Seriously, fuck Mike Martz. I knew better.
#18 Dane Sanzenbacher: 27 receptions, 276 yds, 3 TDs, 10.2 YPC.
I spent a lot of time last summer making fun of the usual Bears meatballs who fell in love with Sanzenbacher. Then the sonofabitch actually made the team. That was strike one. Then he had touchdowns in his first two games. That was strike two. Then the rest of the season he proceeded to suck ass, with one of the lowest catch rates in the game (caught less than 50% of the balls thrown his way according to Pro Football Focus, which isn't surprising since he's a damned no-talent midget). That's strike three. He also dropped six passes, an absurd total for a guy who barely had 50 targets on the season. So he's slow, short, he has bad hands, and he's a terrible route runner. With any luck, the addition of Devin Thomas, Eric Weems, and hopefully Rookie-To-Be-Named-Later, Sanzenbacher's played his last down for the Bears. I'll be willing to deal with the asshurt morons. Especially the one I saw at Soldier Field wearing the Sanzenbacher jersey. You've got issues, pal.
#23 Devin Hester: 26 receptions, 369 yds, 1 TD, 14.2 ypc.
This was Devin's most disappointing year as a Bears receiver yet, even when you factor in the stat-killing injury to Cutler. Usually Devin could be expected to catch most of the balls thrown his way, but this year his catch % was all the way down to a pathetic 46%. He dropped seven passes, also an unusually high total for him, and he was a complete nonfactor in the red zone. He made a classic Hester Route Running Mistake in the first Green Bay game when he bumped into Charles Woodson in an attempt to draw a foul when it was clear to everyone (especially Jay, who threw yet another beautiful and futile deep ball his way) that he'd have a touchdown if he'd just kept running straight. Fortunately, Phil Emery has somewhat less tolerance for bullshit than Jerry Angelo, and decided to put the final nail in the "Devin Hester is our #1 receiver" coffin. That's not to say Devin can't be an effective weapon now that Brandon Marshall is there. I've read some proposals that Devin belongs in the slot, where he can use his speed to beat safeties and nickelbacks, and that's a fine idea so long as Earl Bennett still has a role. As for 2011, though, it's hard to take away much that was positive about Devin Hester the Receiver (a complete different entity, as we know, than Devin Hester the Greatest Return Man of All Time).
#80 Earl Bennett: 24 receptions, 381 yds, 1 TD, 15.9 ypc.
Earl Bennett's 2011 was also disappointing, but for a different reason. A severe injury in the New Orleans game caused him to miss five games. When he came back, he and Jay showed their telepathic connection and he averaged 5 catches for 83 yards in the three games between his return and Jay's injury. He was also surprisingly effective downfield in those three games, as he averaged 18 yards per catch during those three games. Then, of course, Jay went down and Caleb Hanie was incapable of finding anyone with regularity, let alone the BBE. Hopefully next year will be the best and healthiest year yet for the Cutler-BBE combo, since it's very possible that Earl could get starter's reps flipping back and forth with Hester at slot and flanker while Marshall plays mostly at split end. I remember when Jay first came to the Bears in 2009 he said that Earl reminded him of Eddie Royal, and it wouldn't seem ridiculous to think that a full year of Cutler and Earl together might resemble Royal's 2008 campaign: 91 rec, 980 yds, 5 tds. Whatever role he plays, we all know the Bears can count on the BBE.
#81 Sam Hurd: 8 rec, 109 yds, 0 TDs, 13.6 ypc.
He was playing alright for a fifth wide receiver up until he was busted for selling cocaine. The fact that he was already under investigation for trafficking when Jerry Angelo signed him, supposedly after Jerry had thoroughly vetted him, might have honestly been the final nail in Jerry's coffin. So, thanks Sam?
That's all for the wideouts. Obviously this unit will look very different in 2012 with the addition of Marshall. Roy's already gone, and it seems unlikely that we'll see any of Johnny Knox next year. That leaves Marshall, Bennett, Hester, Weems, Thomas, and Sanzenbacher. I've already said that I expect a wide receiver somewhere in the draft, so it'll be interesting to see who shakes out as starters out of that group. The Bears don't usually carry six wideouts as they did last year, but Weems is obviously a lock on special teams, and my guess is that Thomas may earn playing time as a wideout but will definitely make the roster as a special teams player, so all signs point to Sanzenbacher getting the axe. That'll be a good day.