Earl Bennett was my No.2 WR prospect in the 2008 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. He demonstrated consistent ability to adjust to passes thrown away from his body, the concentration to make difficult catches in traffic, and yards after the catch skill. Bennett’s transition to the NFL has been slow, but the past couple of years have shown encouraging signs of life.
“We didn’t throw it to him enough. That will be remedied. He will figure in a much larger role than he did last year. He came to us late. He was injured. I wasn’t really sure where he was with all the stuff. But he established himself as a guy who needs to get a lot more balls than he did. He’s extremely reliable. I know Jay feels comfortable with him in the slot doing some of those things. But he should be able to play outside for us as well.”
– Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz on Earl Bennett
Why does Mike Martz find Earl Bennett reliable? Why does Martz intend to target Bennett more often in 2010? Why will the presence of free agent Roy Williams help Bennett?
I believe some highlights of the 2010 season provide answers to the “Why” of Bears WR Earl Bennett.
0:01 – Bennett has developed into an excellent zone player, which in the Bears multiple receiver sets is huge asset for Jay Cutler. Note the crisp break Bennett makes to set up the zone defender and enhance the space available in the open area. It’s amazing how frequently zone runners drift into space and round off breaks, but Bennett executes his break as if he’s facing a defender in man coverage.
The secondary benefit of Bennett’s break is that he creates an extra step between himself and the shallow zone defender. This gives Bennett room to duck under the initial wrap, get the first down, and then make a second defender miss in the open field. Bennett isn’t fast, but he’s a quick player with a wiggle to his running style. He makes two other defenders miss and turns a six-yard reception into a 50-yard gain. This wasn’t speed that earned Bennett the yardage, it was his sharp break that took the initial defender out of position in zone coverage.
Also take note of Bennett’s skill at adjusting to the football thrown high and behind him and he still quickly ducks under the oncoming defender after the catch. This is starter-caliber awareness of the zone and the open field. It’s a perfect example of a player who may not have great speed, but he processes information quickly and appears as if he playing one step ahead of his opposition. I’ll take that over track speed eight days a week.
0:50 – There isn’t much that’s special about this play on the surface. Bennett runs a route between the zone and turns back to make the catch in the end zone. However, what you should note on the replay is Bennett’s understanding of where the split the zone to create confusion among the Eagles defenders. Both the back shoulder throw and the split second of doubt Bennett creates between these two defenders is what gives receiver room to make an uncontested catch.
1:15 –More zone spanking from Bennett against the Lions. Cutler motions Bennett to confirm the pre-snap read of the defense and the receiver runs a perfect zone route between two defenders. It’s not just about running to the open area. Bennett has learned where and when he needs to time his break based on his read of the coverage. There is a feel that comes from running zone routes. This is something that my colleague Cecil Lammey has reported that Eddie Royal has lacked during his first few years in the league. After the catch, Bennett once again flashes nice balance after contact as an open field runner.
2:00 – What we’ve always known is that Bennett and Jay Cutler have a strong rapport that they developed early at Vanderbilt. Bennett does a nice job of working his way back to the quarterback, making the catch, and then using his quick first step to make the initial defender miss.
2:18 – Based on what I saw from Bennett at Vanderbilt the red zone is where I thought Bennett would shine in the NFL. At only 5’10”, Bennett lacks a size advantage, but his quick-first step, large catch radius to adjust to the ball, and toughness in traffic are great tools for a red zone receiver. Watch Bennett gain the outside with his release against man coverage. Despite zone help on the inside, Bennett still forces the cornerback inside with his hard release off the line. The sharp break outside leaves the defender in the dust for a relatively easy catch in the corner.
2:43 – This is very similar to the play against the Lions. Cutler motions Bennett to the wing and the receiver does a fine job of drawing the shallow zone defender outside with his release inside the corner. However the break is just inside of the shallow defender to give Cutler a solid throwing lane.
Bennett might lack the speed to score, but savvy NFL personnel execs and coaches understand that a player doesn’t have to be everything to play for a team. I think players who consistently turn 10-yard gains into 20-yard gains are more valuable than all-or-nothing speedsters who may score when they catch the football, but rarely make the catch, much less know how to get open.
3:09 –Watch Bennett slot left recognize the coverage and communicate the read to his teammate on the outside. He decisively slants inside and straightens his route vertically to get behind the linebacker. Cutler threads the needle for a huge gain.
3:45 – When a team has a good zone route runner like Bennett, it allows a coordinator like Martz to use a variety of formations to create openings such as this short touchdown pass.
4:20 – A minor example of Bennett’s skill to adjust to the ball in traffic. Good concentration knowing a hit might be coming.
4:27 – Note how closely Bennett cuts behind the linebacker veering outside to cover his teammate split left. This break provides Bennett the smallest crease between two defenders to make a back-shoulder catch in traffic. These kind of plays come from great rapport between quarterback and receiver. Peyton Manning and his primary receivers both past (Marvin Harrison) and present (Reggie Wayne) share this connection that we see from Cutler and Bennett.
4:40 – Bennett once again works back to the quarterback and his ability to feel the open area makes him an asset to Jay Cutler.
4:56 – Watch the leaping back-shoulder adjustment to the football in the path of the defender. Another example of consistent ability to concentrate in traffic.
5:10 – Bennett demonstrates again that he’s more than a zone route runner. Split wide left, Bennett beats his single coverage with a late break to the inside for the touchdown.
5:20 – Another leaping catch in the path of an oncoming defender. This time Bennett takes the hit on the shoulder where the ball arrives, but his technique, hand strength, and concentration serve him well. This is what I saw from Bennett in the red zone at Vanderbilt that always impressed me.
5:33 – Patience and quickness. Bennett’s punt return for a touchdown reveals more of his skill for rarely presenting a defender with a direct hit.
These highlights offer a glimpse as to why Bennett reminded personnel evaluators of Hines Ward. I’m not convinced Bennett has the after the catch skills of Ward in his prime, but his routes and hands are good enough to become Jay Cutler’s go-to receiver.
Recent free agent acquisition Roy Williams may seem like the more obvious go-to option, but this multiple receiver offense can make a good slot receiver a highly productive player. If you recall Williams’ last tenure with Mike Martz in Detroit, the Lions had a receiver by the name of Mike Furrey who posted 1086 yards on 98 catches and scored 6 touchdowns in 2006. This was the same season that Williams had 82 catches, 1310 yards, and 7 scores – the best season of his career.
Wes Welker. Mike Furrey. Earl Bennett?