Hester has the tools but must be more precise in his routes.
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September 7 at Indianapolis 14 at Carolina 21 TAMPA BAY 28 PHILADELPHIA
October 5 at Detroit 12 at Atlanta 19 MINNESOTA 26 Bye
November 2 DETROIT 9 TENNESSEE 16 at Green Bay 23 at St. Louis 30 at Minnesota
December 7 JACKSONVILLE 11 NEW ORLEANS(T) 22 GREEN BAY (M) 28 at Houston
Mike Brown, Free Safety: A healthy Brown could be the difference between a mediocre defense and one that can carry a lackluster offense. Brown has missed 43 of the Bears' last 64 games, during which they went 20-23 when he was out and 16-5 when he played. Brown is slated to start in '08, but he's not taking his good health for granted. "I go day by day," he says.
They may espouse a run-first philosophy, but when Sunday comes, it will fall to the wideouts to provide the spark.
The Bears' reliance on their ground game is as certain as death and taxes andanother Batman sequel. "We still get off the bus running," Lovie Smith has saidevery year since becoming coach in 2004. Yet after last year's measly 83.1rushing yards per game (second lowest in team history), and with this season'sbackfield-by-committee that includes career reserve Adrian Peterson,injury-prone free agent Kevin Jones and untested second-round draft pick MattForte (Tulane), what Chicago needs most is serious production from receivers whocan stretch the defense.
With the loss of receiving-yardage leaders Bernard Berrian and MuhsinMuhammad to free agency, the Bears are rebooting at wideout. Start with DevinHester. Last year, his second in the NFL, the electric return man was graduallyworked into the lineup; he peaked with 11 catches and a touchdown over thelast four games, primarily out of three- and four-wideout sets in which he coulddraw favorable matchups. At season's end Smith all but declared Hester hisNo. 1 receiver for 2008.
Is Hester ready? Well, his route running is still imprecise. And he has takenonly a handful of full-on hits in his pro career, so there's the question ofwhether his 5' 11", 189-pound frame can handle the physical toll of beingan every-down receiver in addition to returning kickoffs and punts. Smithdoesn't seem worried. "Working on his body in the off-season was key becausehe's going to have a lot more duties," he says. "We expect he can handleit."
Chicago also hopes that Hester's natural skills offset his mechanical issues,as they did on two instances in a one-on-one drill at training camp. On bothplays Hester lost his footing on hook routes -- and both times his concentrationand great hands allowed him to snag the throw high over his head while on hisknees. Says quarterback Kyle Orton, who was named the starter over Rex Grossmanin mid-August, "Once [Devin] gets the kinks out, the things he does on the fieldwill erase any questions people have about him as a receiver."
Until then the Bears will lean on two veterans plucked off the NFL scrapheap, Marty Booker (late of the Dolphins) and Brandon Lloyd (Redskins). Booker,who played in Chicago from 1999 through 2003, is the best bet to fill Muhammad'spossession-receiver role, given his similar skill set (crisply run routes, greathands) and experience. The 32-year-old has seven seasons of 47 or morereceptions and had a Bears-record 100 catches in '01. He's also unlikely to bejarred by the club's iffy quarterback situation. "I've had 16 differentquarterbacks in my career," says Booker. "Who's throwing has never been anissue."
On the other side, Lloyd is being counted on to pick up most of Berrian's71 catches and 951 yards of last year, which seems a stretch until youconsider his background. Lloyd was a star under coach Ron Turner at Illinois,finishing No. 2 on the school's alltime list for receiving yards, andfollowed with three promising years with the 49ers, who ran an offense similarto Turner's. After a trade to the Redskins in 2006, though, Lloyd fell out offavor and his production declined. Now reunited with Turner, the Bears'offensive coordinator and a friend of 10 years, Lloyd envisions a careerrevival. "Having that familiar face around is huge," he says. "Same offense;similar terminologies. There's a lot of promise."
Fighting for playing time are fourth-year men Rashied Davis and Mark Bradley,plus third-round pick Earl Bennett (Vanderbilt), the SEC's alltime leadingreceiver. The running backs and tight ends are better-than-average pass catchersas well. "That's a lot of guys to get the ball to," says Davis. "You really haveto hope the competition raises all of our games."
If so -- and keep in mind that by Week 3 the Bears will have faced two ofthe league's top pass defenses, Indianapolis and Tampa Bay -- Lovie Smith mighthave to finally change his tune. Catch as catch can,perhaps? -- Adam Duerson
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