What to make of Bears receivers?
It reads like a joke:
"Bears plan for Devin Hester to play bigger offensive role this season."
No, that's not an Onion headline. It's actually a headline from an Aug. 7 Chicago Sun-Times piece in which Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz was quoted as saying of Hester's performance last year, "He played even better than I thought he did." In the same piece, receivers coach Darryl Drake said, "He really was our best receiver last year, even though the numbers didn't show it."
Say no to drugs, kids.
In racking up a whopping 40 catches on 74 targets in 2010, Hester tied Chansi Stuckey for 65th in the NFL in receptions; he finished 71st in receiving yards (with 475, just behind Ben Obomanu and Mohamed Massaquoi); and his 11.9 yards per catch was 58th in the league among WR qualifiers. I'll grant you that Jay Cutler had minimal success hitting any of his receivers down the field. But I watched every Bears game last year, and Johnny Knox was clearly a better and more dangerous threat than Hester. It absolutely wasn't close.
So you'll pardon me if I don't take these comments from Chicago's coaches at face value. Because if I did, I'd have to conclude that they live in some Bizarro world in which running sloppy pass patterns and watching footballs clank off one's feet is a good thing.
Thus far in training camp, Hester is reportedly running with the first team along with newly acquired Roy Williams, while Earl Bennett is the slot receiver in three-wideout sets and Knox is languishing with the likes of Sam Hurd on the second squad. So in an offense that keeps threatening to take advantage of Cutler's big arm with an innovative Martz-ian offensive attack, the personnel just seems completely screwed up.
I have to believe this is temporary. I have to believe it's a motivational ploy to get Williams some semblance of confidence back after his disastrous stint in Dallas, and to get Hester to believe he's something more than an elite special-teams returner. Because while Knox may not yet be a great route-runner entering his third season, he's a purveyor of 4.34 speed, and as such is the only wideout Chicago has who can consistently break big plays.
What do you do with these guys in your fantasy draft? It's a dang good question. Taken at face value, these early comments and depth charts signal a serious problem for any Bears receiver. I wouldn't draft Hester in any-sized league even if he is the starter: I've never seen anything from the man to indicate that he's ready to be a consistent outside threat. Bennett may catch a bunch of passes over the middle of the field, but the dude has five TDs in three seasons. Knox, under such a scenario, would merely be a situational deep threat. Heck, Williams would likely be the best bet of the bunch in this case, not exactly an enticing prospect after we all watched him torpedo game after game with a star on his helmet.
But I refuse to take Martz or Drake at face value. Perhaps so I can enable myself to retain some faint belief that the world makes sense, I'm staying convinced that when the smoke clears and the Bears line up against the Falcons early in September, Knox is going to be the team's starting split end, and thus its most enticing fantasy receiver. Williams should be the flanker, Bennett should be the slot guy and Hester should focus his energies on the return game and occasional impact player in four-receiver sets. I admit, I'm hedging: In a 10-team league, I now consider Knox a pure No. 3 wideout with some freaky downside (but some nice upside, too), and Williams is probably a No. 4. In a PPR, Bennett isn't a terrible bench option. And Hester? Well, believe his coaches if you will. Maybe I'll wind up being hellaciously wrong (it wouldn't be the first time), but outside of a return-yards league, I'm staying far, far away. I'm setting the over/under on catches for Hester at 50, and 10 times out of 10 I'm taking the under.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.
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