In a division with the high-flying Packers and Lions – the Bears decided that if you can’t beat em then you better join em as Chicago bolstered a passing game that floundered in 2011 (finished 26th while averaging just 188 YPG). WR Johnny Knox led the team in receiving with just 37 catches for 727 and two TDs but his 2012 prospects and possibly his career are in jeopardy following a horrific back injury sustained late last season.

Despite making a splash with the Brandon Marshall trade – Chicago decided that they needed to add multiple playmakers to the passing game which led to a draft day trade with St Louis. The Bears traded up to select South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffery with the No. 45 overall pick in the 2012 draft. Questions regarding his speed and conditioning dropped Jeffery from first round consideration but he has the skill set to become a lethal red zone weapon (6-foot-3, 216) –  provided he can avoid the late night trips to Wiener Circle. The South Carolina alum ran a 4.54 at his Pro Day and was considered to have some the best hands in this draft class. His 2011 production was a bit disappointing (49 receptions, 762 yards, 15.6 yards per catch, 8 touchdowns) but in 2010, he hauled in 88 passes for 1,517 yards and nine touchdowns albeit playing with mediocre QBs.

Jeffery is a physical WR that should compete for the starting job opposite Brandon Marshall this summer – we suspect he finishes 2nd in targets this season (ahead of Earl Bennett and Devin Hester). The lack of a high-profile TE (Kellen Davis is the starter) could also lead to many red zone targets for Jeffery in 2012.

QBJay CutlerJosh McCown
RBMatt ForteMichael BushKahlil Bell
WRBrandon MarshallDevin HesterJohnny KnoxEarl BennettAlshon Jeffery
TEKellen DavisKevin Boss

WINNERS: WR Brandon Marshall (ADP: 33 Overall / WR8) / QB Jay Cutler (ADP: 103 Overall / QB15)

It’s no secret that the Bears may have had the worst WR corps in the NFC in 2011. QB Jay Cutler missed the final six games with a broken thumb (was averaging 231 YPG) and the Chicago passing game vanished with Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown under center.

The reunion with WR Brandon Marshall and reunion with first year QB coach Jeremy Bates (Bates was Cutler’s QBs coach in Denver in 2008 when he threw for a career-high 4,526 yards) should result in a major bounce back season for the entire Chicago passing game.

Brandon Marshall’s reunion with Jay Cutler should allow him to regain solid WR1 status (a welcomed change from Matt Moore/Chad Henne in Miami). He finished as the 12th best fantasy WR last season despite the pedestrian QB play and non-existent 2nd WR in Miami. Marshall has only topped double-digit TDs once in his six NFL seasons but 2012 could result in a career year provided he can avoid domestic wrestling matches. We expect rookie Alshon Jeffery will emerge as the starter opposite Brandon Marshall and should help to alleviate some of the double teams that have been the norm for B-Marsh.

It’s also worth noting that the other three NFC North pass defenses struggled mightily in 2011 (Green Bay – 32nd, Minnesota – 26th, Detroit – 22nd) and will be hard pressed to contain the Cutler to Marshall connection which should have fantasy owners feeling a Mile High in 2012.

LOSERS: Earl Bennett / Devin Hester

Bennett earned a five-year, $18.5 million extension despite only hauling in 24 catches for 382 yards and 1 TD in 2011.

His connection with former Vanderbilt teammate Jay Cutler was evident in his mini breakout in weeks 9-11 (averaged 5 catches for 84 YPG) but Bennett disappeared from the fantasy map for the other 13 weeks of the season.  He’s likely to enter the 2012 as the Bears’ slot receiver but we expect Alshon Jeffery to surpass him on the depth chart by mid-season at the latest.

Although Devin Hester is penciled in as the starter opposite Brandon Marshall we don’t expect that to last. Arguably one of the most dynamic kick returners in NFL history – Hester tallied just 26 receptions, 369 yards and one TD as a receiver last season. Unless your league rewards points for kick returns (Hester had 1,177 yards and three TDs last season) – we don’t see him gaining fantasy relevance any time soon.

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