Chicago Bears wide receiver Johnny Knox (13) celebrates with Devin Hester (23) after Knox caught a 68-yard pass against the Green Bay Packers.
Associated Press file
No group other than rented mules got more abuse than the Bears' wide receivers in the off-season, during training camp and through the preseason.
The Bears also got a lot of unsolicited outside advice, mostly along the lines of the "need" to bring in a veteran receiver to add experience and talent to a group that supposedly lacked both.
But Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and rookie Johnny Knox have put up some impressive numbers through the first three weeks of the season. Those three have accounted for all 35 receptions and all 514 yards produced by the team's wide receivers. That's an average of 11.7 catches per game for 171.3 yards. Last season Bears wide receivers caught 7.9 passes per game for an average of 105.3 yards.
"You can't start listening to what a lot of people say," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "We thought it was a talented group. We talked about Devin being able to handle the No. 1 receiver position. He can do that. We talked about Earl Bennett stepping up this year. He's done that. We really liked Johnny Knox's speed in early camp.
"We like the position. We've got a long way away, and we've got a lot of improvement to make, but we like the start. We like the growth we see in them each week."
Bennett and Hester are tied for the team lead with 13 receptions. Hester leads the Bears with 187 receiving yards, while Bennett is second with 168. Knox is third on the Bears with 159 receiving yards on 9 receptions, and he and Hester are tied for the team lead with 2 receiving TDs.
"They're playing really well," quarterback Jay Cutler said. "We never doubted them. There was no chance of us bringing anybody else in. We knew we were going to go with this crew. I'm proud of them."
Maybe the most impressive aspect of the crew is its youthfulness. Hester is the old man at 26, and he's only in his third year of playing wide receiver in the NFL. Bennett and Knox are 22.
Bennett didn't catch a pass last season as a rookie, but the coaching staff didn't lose faith in the 2008 third-round pick, and they were impressed by his progress in the off-season learning the playbook and getting comfortable in the scheme.
"Earl had a history," Smith said. "We had watched him quite a bit at Vanderbilt. We knew he had good hands. We knew he would work as hard as anyone to become the best possible player he could be, and that's what he's done."
Bennett has been labeled by some as a possession receiver, unable to stretch the field, but he already has caught 3 passes of more than 20 yards.
"That's what he did in college," wide receivers coach Darryl Drake said. "You don't become the all-time leading receiver in SEC history in three years if you don't have the ability to do that. And that's what he's got. Sometimes you can't force feed a baby. You have to let it grow, and Earl has grown."
Bennett was asked to learn all three of the wide receiver positions in the Bears' offense last season, which slowed his development.
Knox has been asked to focus on just one.
"We're not moving Johnny around," Drake said. "He's locked in at one spot. He doesn't have to do a whole lot, but at the same time he does have exceptional quickness and a great deal of ability. We're just trying to take advantage of the things that he can do - not asking him to do too much - where he can go out and perform and play free. He doesn't have to think, (he can just) react, and he's been able to do that so far."
Those three have averaged a combined 14.5 yards per catch, even though opposing defenses have focused on taking the long ball out of Cutler's repertoire. But the Bears Big Three have made up for it by tacking on yards after the catch.
"They've done a great job of that," Cutler said. "I try to get the ball in their hands as quickly as possible and let them do their thing. They've done a great job of breaking tackles and making people miss, but they know when to get down, so they're not out there sacrificing their bodies. They're doing a good job for us."
Better than almost anybody expected.