The receiving corps with the fewest proven performers might reside with the Chicago Bears (9-7). Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how it pans out), this group will have plenty of opportunity to prove doubters wrong. The team paid a hefty price for new franchise quarterback Jay Cutler, and he is expected to pay immediate dividends. It's not to say this unit doesn't have talent. What do the team's top contributors (potential in some cases) bring to the table for Cutler and your fantasy team?
The first name that will stick out is Devin Hester. The former University of Miami (Fla.) star quickly made a name for himself in the league as an All-World return man, and now he'll be depended on as the top receiver for Cutler.
Hester led all Chicago wideouts in 2008 with 51 receptions (third on the team). However, he rarely showed his big-play ability, averaging just over four yards after the catch and scoring just three touchdowns. The fourth-year man said he feels he made progress by the end of the season; he caught 25 passes for 347 yards and a touchdown in the team's final six contests.
It's possible that things will improve with Cutler under center, especially considering the upgrade in arm strength over the departed Kyle Orton. Cutler has a cannon, something Chicago can pair up with Hester's speed and use to its advantage. It will be interesting to see the type of rapport these two have developed in Cutler's short time in the Windy City.
Chicago is looking to second-year receiver Earl Bennett for a big year. As a rookie in 2008, the former Vanderbilt star struggled with the playbook and didn't see the field much. He didn't register a catch in 10 games. It's Bennett who could benefit most from Cutler's arrival, though, because of their shared history. The two were teammates in college and spent 2005 on the field together; Bennett, as a sophomore, caught 79 balls for 876 yards and nine touchdowns from the senior Cutler. Bennett thinks Cutler's presence will definitely help him get more in tune with the offense in his second season in the league.
Rashied Davis is a veteran suited for slot receiver in the NFL. Last season was his best in the league to date; he caught 35 passes for 445 yards and a pair of scores. The former San Jose SaberCat (Arena League) is hoping to improve on those numbers this season, his fifth in the league.
Rookie third-round pick Juaquin Iglesias (University of Oklahoma) is expected to contend for playing time as well. He's a possession receiver who, while not having game-breaking speed, runs great routes and is very smart. He was a three-year starter on one of the more prolific offenses in college football, but it's questionable whether his skills transfer well to the pro game. It wouldn't be surprising to see him have an impact early on, but he must find a way to separate.
Late-round picks Johnny Knox (fifth) and Derek Kinder (seventh) are also in the mix. Knox doesn't have great size but possesses outstanding speed with the stopwatch on and impressed in early OTAs. Kinder is also a speedster but has yet to stand out.
The Cutler factor
The Bears' new quarterback is considered one of the brightest and most talented passers in the game. He has already picked up the offense and believes the team already boasts enough talent at wideout. General manager Jerry Angelo agrees with the assessment. Like many, he also supposes a quarterback makes a team a winner. He believes quarterbacks make receivers, and not the other way around. Angelo stated he has no intention of pursuing other receivers through free agency.
Cutler's ability continues to amaze offensive coordinator Ron Turner and quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton. Hamilton alluded to the possibility that the Bears will open up the offense and take advantage of Hester's deep speed more often now that the strong-armed Cutler is slinging it. The staff may find it difficult to hold back with their new toy.
The fourth-year passer said second-year running back Matt Forte's ability as a receiver impresses him, but the Broncos offense didn't call for Cutler to throw to backs nearly as often as Chicago did with Forte. Cutler likes to go downfield and (good or bad) isn't afraid to try to squeeze the ball into tight spaces.
There are some other things to consider, though. Obviously, this is an offense that, even with Cutler in the fold, starts with the run game. Forte had a great rookie season, rushing for 1,238 yards and eight touchdowns. He also happened to lead the team with 63 catches, tacking on 477 yards and another four scores. Backup Kevin Jones is healthy and could take on a more significant role. With the rushing attack as pivotal as it is in the Chicago offense, wideout production is usually expected to take a hit.
The tight end position is another aspect. Greg Olsen is a very dangerous threat and proved that in 2008 with 54 receptions for 574 yards and five touchdowns. Cutler enjoyed a great relationship with tight end Tony Scheffler, turning him and the position in general into one of his favorite targets. If Olsen can take on that role, expect big things from the former Miami Hurricane. Tight end Desmond Clark could end up taking a backseat to Olsen, but he has been a solid receiver in the Bears' oft-used two-tight end sets. Such formations were very common for Cutler in the Rocky Mountains, too.
Hester is the Chicago receiver of choice in fantasy drafts. His average draft placement of the seventh to ninth round is tops among Bears wideouts. That may be buoyed by lofty expectations considering his lack of production as a receiver and slots him as a low-end No. 3 or high-upside No. 4. However, considering his positive growth and new teammate, it's not unreasonable to think that he can be a dangerous if inconsistent No. 3 fantasy receiver who can approach 1,000 yards and a half-dozen scores.
Bennett is rarely drafted, and when he is, it's usually in the final round or two. That's fitting for the late-round flier, but he's the kind one might look to take because of his upside, relative anonymity and history with Cutler. As what would likely be the last receiver on your depth chart, he may surprise enough to serve as a low-end No. 4 or No. 5.
Both Davis and Iglesias have been going undrafted in the vast majority of the fantasy leagues, and rightfully so. However, given Davis' ability in the slot, he could also contribute as a No. 5 receiver. Neither is probably worth drafting, but either - if Iglesias builds on some momentum he initiated in late offseason workouts - could be a viable waiver wire addition.
Knox and Kinder don't hear their names called on fantasy draft day. Knox has plenty of potential because of his greatest asset: his wheels. Follow training camp action; if Knox draws the attention of the staff like he did in early OTAs, he may eventually emerge as a surprise performer. He's likely to have value in only the deepest leagues, particularly full-retention dynasty formats. Kinder can be ignored.