Special thanks to the Reverend and my buddy Brian. Both our Bears-based conversations this weekend led to me writing this column.
The Bears will enter into the 2012 season with that which they have never possesed. They will take the field on opening day with depth at the wide receiver position. Depth. At wide receiver. Who woulda thunk it?
Brandon Marshall is the stud, number one-type we've all clamored for since Dave Wannstedt prematurely ended the tenures of Curtis Conway and Jeff Graham in Chicago. Alshon Jeffery has the size and hands to be a perfect complement to Marshall and a serious threat in the red zone. The Bears will line up two dynamic weapons in the slot: Earl Bennett as a third-down, possession man and Devin Hester as a deep speed threat. Four men. Four unique sets of skills. All good.
Phil Emery did not stop there. Eric Weems and Devin Thomas have also been paid some money to wear navy blue and orange and both are significant special teams additions. Will they have an impact in the passing game? For the most part that is doubtful but their roster places are almost assured by their ability to impact the third phase, cherished by an organization that pays their special teams coordinator appropriately as one of the best in the game. (Dave Toub will be a head coach in the NFL inside of five years.)
Where does that leave Dane Sanzenbacher?
The Great Dane from the Ohio State University showed a propensity to get open down around the goal line and seemed to earn the respect of Cutty as the season progressed. He also struggled mightily to get separation on third downs and dropped far too many passes while standing alone near the sideline. (In fairness I only remember one of these but everything negative about 2011 seems heightened in my mind. Remember all that Sam Hurd stuff? Did that really happen?) Dane's contributions on specials? I can't remember one.
But there is no doubting his raw ability and one wonders if Sanzenbacher could develop into the next Ricky Proehl if given the appropriate time and the correct system. (Yes, by the way, I'm making that comparison based purely on race. Sue me.) But more to the point I don't believe the Bears should be in the business of casting "projects" like Dane to the slag heap. His 27 catches, 276 yards and 3 touchdowns as a rookie pale in comparison to Proehl's rookie stats but were impressive for an undrafted free agent rarely serving as more than the third option. (A look at Dane's game-by-game stats for 2011 show consistency, if a lack for the spectacular, when healthy.)
There are not many question marks when it comes to the Bears roster for 2012. Most of the final slate is pretty well set while starting gigs are up for the taking. Sanzenbacher, a fan favorite, is a true question mark. Can the Bears afford to keep him on the roster without receiving significant contributions from him on specials? Can Sanzenbacher display the physicality and toughness required to be a specials standout? Or might Dane display the type of improvement in the passing game come Bourbonnais that makes him impossible to cut?
I certainly hope so. For me the potential future of of Dane Sanzenbacher is far more promising than the present of Devin Thomas.
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