It seems that the preseason hype around a then-undrafted rookie was completely warranted. He’s taken some lumps over the past few years, but he is the only 2017 Bears receiver who remains on the team.
His name, of course, is Tanner Gentry.
Though he almost certainly won’t make it past training camp, that fact paints a clear picture of how much the Bears’ wideout group has evolved over the past couple years, to the point where it’s arguably the deepest on the team. Heavy investment in the draft and free agency two years in a row has led to a markedly improved roster and some tough decisions that must be made by kickoff on September 5.
Here is a complete preview of the wide receiver position in Chicago.
Depth Chart (2018 stats, * = college stats)
1. Allen Robinson: 55 receptions, 754 yards (13.7 YPR), 4 touchdowns, 1 carry, 9 yards (9.0 YPC)
2. Anthony Miller: 33 receptions, 423 yards (12.8 YPR), 7 touchdowns, 6 carries, 26 yards (4.3 YPC)
3. Taylor Gabriel: 67 receptions, 688 yards (10.3 YPR), 2 touchdowns, 9 carries, 61 yards (6.8 YPC)
4. Riley Ridley*: 43 receptions, 559 yards (13.0 YPC), 9 touchdowns
5. Cordarrelle Patterson: 21 receptions, 247 yards (11.8 YPC), 3 touchdowns, 42 carries, 228 yards (5.4 YPC), 1 touchdown
If Robinson’s 150+ yards against Philly in the playoffs heightened your expectations for his 2019 output, you’re not alone. The former Jaguar proved inconsistent last season, but started to turn it up late as he became more and more comfortable with both his knee and his quarterback, Mitch Trubisky.
His final three games each involved something special. Against Green Bay, he caught a simple seven-yard yard hook and shook off an aggressive DB for a chunk play early. In San Francisco, he broke free on an out-and-up and dove to make a spectacular catch. That dive caused a minor injury that forced him out of a meaningless Week 17 bout, but he came back on Wild Card weekend and almost singlehandedly beat the Eagles.
Given the massive production Robinson has shown in the past, his age (still just 25), his size, and his excellent route-running ability, if those last few games were a sign of things to come… watch out.
Miller has showcased why the Bears mortgaged a 2019 second-rounder to move up and take him last year, and this year he will emerge from the first few weeks of camp as the unquestioned number two. The Memphis alum is a complete player and he’s the best at contested catches on the team. His ability in tight spaces could explain why he led the team in touchdown receptions in 2018.
Why, then did he only catch 33 passes last year? A shoulder that wouldn’t stop popping out (he had offseason surgery) is one cause, but the other is that Trubisky missed him. A lot. Whether it was a missed read or a missed throw, he and Miller were not on the same page. Trubisky must improve his connection to the young receiver and his consistency for Miller to reach his full potential.
Not to be forgotten is Gabriel, who was a consistent third down target and is NOT a slot receiver – both Miller and Robinson played inside the numbers on a higher percentage of snaps than Gabriel. His yards per catch wasn’t where the Bears would like it to be, though as he will point out, corners were playing off coverage against him constantly – as they well should be.
The Bears did not plan on taking a receiver with their fourth-round pick, but Ridley was too good to pass up that late. He is a potential starter when Gabriel and/or Robinson is/are gone, but for now, his role is explained in this video.
And finally, Patterson, who is a big-play threat anywhere he lines up, and he will line up anywhere. He started at running back for two games in New England, so his carries total is inflated. Typically, his ideal season-long role is one to five touches per game – run, pass, or one of the plays explained in this video.
Why did I research, write, record, and produce two full-length videos on the Bears’ fourth and fifth receivers? It remains one of history’s greatest unknowns.
Key Training Camp Battle: Who makes the 53?
Ordinarily, teams only keep six receivers on their rosters, and the Bears have five stone-cold locks. That leaves one spot available for the special-teams speedster Hall (essentially Josh Bellamy‘s replacement), the large and developing Wims, or the explosive but injury-prone other Hall.
Or… does it? Ryan Pace has said he might be flexible here because the Bears don’t want to lose any of these players. Keeping seven receivers and only three backs (sans Kerrith Whyte) is an option, as is a redshirt year for the Mizzou product Hall, who comes to the team with existing ailments. Maybe both, if Wims continues to show promise. One thing is for sure – attempting to sneak either the younger Hall or Wims on the practice squad probably isn’t going to end as they hope it will.
Keys to Success
1. Beat the Nickel, catch a dime
That ungodly awful pun alludes to making plays from the slot, specifically for Robinson and Miller. Both thrive inside, and Robinson perfectly fills the “big slot” role that many teams are beginning to use frequently, as he showed in the first Lions game. He’s incredibly deceptive at the line of scrimmage, which plays well when he has space to either side.
Miller’s shiftiness and tenacity in traffic play well here, too. Utilizing the middle of the field any way they can will be massive for Chicago’s offensive success, especially if they’re interested in production after the catch. This was a weakness last year (they were 25th in the NFL, to be specific), and they can’t afford to have it be one again.
2. Taylor the screen game
Taylor Gabriel, that is. Earlier, I mentioned that his yards per reception numbers were down, in large part because teams knew to give him room on curls and out routes in order to stop the vertical stuff. I have a potential solution to this problem: more quick-hitting screens.
If the Bears work that enough with Gabriel they will work. Corners who are playing ten yards off the line of scrimmage will be subsequently caught in front of a blocker instead of attacking the ball. Once teams move their DBs up a few yards to adjust, that’s when you go for the long ball.
Receivers who can block are imperative to a team’s success. Matt Nagy knows this, which is why he gave Bellamy ample playing time on offense; he was the best blocking wideout on the team. This year, they’re even more vital to Chicago’s offense because they have three backs who like to extend plays by bouncing them outside. These bounce-outs do not work if the receivers can’t block.
Luckily, the recently drafted Ridley is a skilled and willing blocker. Miller has some exceptional college highlight tape in this area as well, though he was a bit disappointing in this regard last year. Both will have to be on top of their game as far as blocking goes for the run game to reach new heights.