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THE BEARS' reliance on their ground game is as certain as death and taxes and another Batman sequel. "We still get off the bus running," Lovie Smith has said every year since becoming coach in 2004. Yet after last year's measly 83.1 rushing yards per game (second lowest in team history), and with this season's backfield-by-committee that includes career reserve Adrian Peterson, injury-prone free agent Kevin Jones and untested second-round draft pick Matt Forte (Tulane), what Chicago needs most is serious production from receivers who can stretch the defense.
With the loss of receiving-yardage leaders Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad to free agency, the Bears are rebooting at wideout. Start with Devin Hester. Last year, his second in the NFL, the electric return man was gradually worked into the lineup; he peaked with 11 catches and a touchdown over the last four games, primarily out of three- and four-wideout sets in which he could draw favorable matchups. At season's end Smith all but declared Hester his No. 1 receiver for 2008.
Is Hester ready? Well, his route running is still imprecise. And he has taken only a handful of full-on hits in his pro career, so there's the question of whether his 5'11", 189-pound frame can handle the physical toll of being an every-down receiver in addition to returning kickoffs and punts. Smith doesn't seem worried. "Working on his body in the off-season was key because he's going to have a lot more duties," he says. "We expect he can handle it."
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 both plays Hester lost his footing on hook routes—and both times his concentration and great hands allowed him to snag the throw high over his head while on his knees. Says quarterback Kyle Orton, who was named the starter over Rex Grossman in mid-August, "Once [Devin] gets the kinks out, the things he does on the field will erase any questions people have about him as a receiver."
Until then the Bears will lean on two veterans plucked off the NFL scrap heap, 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's possession-receiver role, given his similar skill set (crisply run routes, great hands) and experience. The 32-year-old has seven seasons of 47 or more receptions and had a Bears-record 100 catches in '01. He's also unlikely to be jarred by the club's iffy quarterback situation. "I've had 16 different quarterbacks in my career," says Booker. "Who's throwing has never been an issue."
On the other side, Lloyd is being counted on to pick up most of Berrian's 71 catches and 951 yards of last year, which seems a stretch until you consider his background. Lloyd was a star under coach Ron Turner at Illinois, finishing No. 2 on the school's alltime list for receiving yards, and followed with three promising years with the 49ers, who ran an offense similar to Turner's. After a trade to the Redskins in 2006, though, Lloyd fell out of favor and his production declined. Now reunited with Turner, the Bears' offensive coordinator and a friend of 10 years, Lloyd envisions a career revival. "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 leading receiver. The running backs and tight ends are better-than-average pass catchers as well. "That's a lot of guys to get the ball to," says Davis. "You really have to hope the competition raises all of our games."
If so—and keep in mind that by Week 3 the Bears will have faced two of the league's top pass defenses, Indianapolis and Tampa Bay—Lovie Smith might have to finally change his tune. Catch as catch can, perhaps?
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP