The wide receiver position for the Bears was nothing short of a disaster in 2017.
The Bears went into the preseason with an already weak core of targets for quarterback Mike Glennon. To make matters worse, it saw its top two threats, Cameron Meredith and Kevin White (calling White a threat is a stretch but that’s how bad it was) go down to injury before week one was complete.
The results were very predictably not pretty. The Bears’ leading receiver was Kendall Wright, who could be generously described as a fine low-ceiling high-floor slot man. In second with more than twice as many receptions as third place was… Tarik Cohen.
A running back.
A very skilled pass-catching running back, but this still speaks volumes to how callously inept the Bears’ receiving corps was last season.
Ryan Pace noticed this and decided to do something about it. The Bears spent acquired more resources at the position in March and April than they had for any position in any single offseason that I can remember. A massive free agent signing here. A complementary pickup there. And trade-up of epic proportions completed a two-month long quest to pick up weapons for their quarterback, Mitch Trubisky.
So today I’ll examine just how much better the Bears got at wide receiver. It’s the fourth piece in a series of position previews leading up to the opening of training camp in Bourbonnais, Illinois on July 21st.
Projected depth chart (2017 stats)
* = stats from 2016
^ = college stats
1. Allen Robinson*-73 receptions, 883 yards, 6 touchdowns
2. Taylor Gabriel–33 receptions, 378 yards, 1 touchdown / 8 carries, 49 yards
3. Anthony Miller^-96 receptions, 1462 yards, 18 touchdowns / 10 carries, 25 yards
4. Kevin White*-19 catches, 187 yards / 1 carry, 9 yards
5. Josh Bellamy–24 receptions, 376 yards, 1 touchdown / 1 carry, 6 yards
6. Bennie Fowler–29 receptions, 350 yards, 3 touchdown
7. Javon Wims^-45 receptions, 720 yards, 7 touchdowns
Robinson was the Bears’ top free agent target and kudos to Pace for getting his man. The often-times overly fiscally responsible Pace was never going to let money stop him from acquiring Robinson after losing bidding wars for his last couple prime targets in the free agent period. He missed all of 2017 due to a torn ACL and had somewhat of a down 2016 largely due to quarterback play, but when healthy and playing at his best Robinson is a true number one receiver.
Gabriel will give Cohen a run for his money for the title of fastest player on the roster and help with Cohen’s role of gadget sideline-to-sideline player while also providing a deep threat on the outside and a big play ability on screen passes. His height would indicate being relegated to the slot but make no mistake, Gabriel is much more than that.
Miller was a player Pace had conviction on in April’s draft and he essentially used his 2019 second rounder early in order to get him. He was ridiculously productive and college and will add another vertical threat, working primarily but by no means exclusively out of the slot.
Putting it bluntly, this is Kevin White’s last chance. He needs to stay healthy, first and foremost, and he’ll need to play better than he had in his first couple short stints where he showed an alarming route-running deficiency. Bellamy and Fowler are here mostly for special teams, with Fowler being an adequate depth piece, and Wims could develop into a solid red zone target at some point down the line.
Key training camp battle: dogfight for the last few roster spots
I would argue that the only locks for the Bears’ opening day roster at this position are Robinson, Gabriel, and Miller. After that it gets murky. The Bears are giving White every opportunity to succeed but if he doesn’t prove that he’s one of the Bears’ six best receivers, he could be on his way out sooner than expected.
Bellamy and Fowler have an aforementioned edge thanks to special teams prowess and if either White or Wims doesn’t show significant potential worthy of replacing them on the 2018 depth chart, or a name from the fringe list surprises and outperforms everybody, Wims will head to the practice squad and White will head to a different team, league, or career.
Keys to Success
1. Need for Speed
Plain and simple, the Bears needed to get faster on offense, and that doesn’t just have to do with the natural speed of the receivers. It is a part of it though, and it’s the part I’ll discuss first. Robinson is deceptively fast, Gabriel is among the ten speediest players in football (if he reads this he’ll get mad though because I didn’t call him the fastest) and Miller is no slouch either. Miller and Gabriel are certainly upgrades from the likes of Wright and especially Dontrelle Inman, and Robinson does enough other things well that speed is an afterthought.
The other aspect of this is the scheme, which should and will do a better job utilizing speed. For example, on RPOs, the faster somebody like Miller or Gabriel can get to their spot for Trubisky can make a lightning quick read the better, and when a wideout with speed gets the ball up the middle there’s always a chance they can split the safeties and score. This also applies to a principle I discussed in my film study on Nagy’s offense from January, which is getting the ball to playmakers in space. If Nagy can scheme (with quick screens, pick plays, etc) the likes of Miller and Gabriel into the open field, their speed will increase the odds of moving the football and making big plays.
The great thing about the Bears’ receiving corps this year (and it gets even better once you factor in the running backs and tight ends) is how many different looks they can throw at the defense.
Each of the top three guys can play inside, outside, maybe as a flanker or a wing, and if they really want to confuse people put Gabriel in the backfield and make something happen that way. Opposing defenses won’t be able to game plan for the Bears’ package of passing plays because they have no clue where guys will be lining up on any given play. If Nagy is competent, and it sure looks like he is, he’ll mix up his packages in order to dictate what the defense has to do instead of letting the opponent do the opposite.
By now, if you’ve read any of my previous positional previews, you should be sensing a common theme with the offense.
Trubisky and the receivers, with a particular emphasis on Robinson, should have a symbiotic relationship. Robinson’s job is to be able to catch balls that may not have been thrown perfectly but are still catchable enough for elite targets. Trubisky, in turn, needs to spread the ball around enough to keep everybody happy and perfect his craft to the point where he’ll be throwing his guys open and boosting their numbers.
The bottom line is this: if Robinson fails without injury, Trubisky will likely take some of the blame. Both should be excited by the prospect of teaming up with one another, as Trubisky is likely the best QB the former Jaguar has played with and vice versa. It’s their job to make sure the relationship is a success.
Follow Jack on Twitter: @JS_92_–Feature Photo Credit: USA Today