Bears

Five wide receivers the Bears could draft to replace Cameron Meredith

Five wide receivers the Bears could draft to replace Cameron Meredith

We’ll get a chance to hear Ryan Pace’s explanation as to why he didn’t match the New Orleans Saints’ offers sheet for Cameron Meredith later this month, a few days before the NFL Draft begins. Whatever the reasoning — medicals, scheme fit, money, etc. — the Bears now have a need for a receiver that, previously, wasn’t as pressing. 

The Bears are still fourth in the NFL in wide receiver spending and shelled out eight-figure contracts to Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel. Those two players should be viewed as the team’s top receivers, with whoever else is brought in (via the draft or free agency) as the team’s No. 3 receiver, at best. 

What the Bears want out of that guy receiver depends on a few things. Should he be a bigger, stronger outside-only guy? Should he be a diminutive, shifty slot-only receiver? Or should he be able to play both inside and outside? 

Meredith has the ability to play both inside and outside, though if the Bears really were concerned enough with his medicals to let him go for less guaranteed money than they paid Markus Wheaton, that decision doesn’t offer much in the way of a clue as to scheme fit. 

Maybe a better starting point is looking at what the Bears already have at receiver. Robinson and Kevin White are mostly outside receivers: A little under 20 percent of Robinson’s career routes have been from the slot; for White, he’s run a little over 20 percent of his routes from the slot, according to Pro Football Focus. Josh Bellamy is right around the same percentage, too. 

And here’s where it’s worth noting the “Zebra” receiver position, where Gabriel will play, isn’t exclusively a slot position. Far from it: Only 36 percent of Tyreek Hill’s routes were from the slot in Nagy’s Kansas City Chiefs offense last year, while Gabriel actually ran a lower percentage of routes from the slot with the Atlanta Falcons than Robinson, White and Bellamy (he was at 15 percent in 2017). It’s a flexible position designed to create mismatches all over the field, even with a 5-foot-8 guy like Gabriel. 

The point being: The Bears probably need more of an Albert Wilson-type player than they do a bigger go-up-and-get-it guy, since they already have him in Robinson and, if healthy, White. But Wilson hardly was “only” a slot guy for the Chiefs last year, too —  58 percent of his routes came from the slot, per Pro Football Focus. 

This is a longer way of saying the Bears need someone who can be flexible to play outside and in the slot. More than likely, the Bears primary “slot” guy will be tight end Trey Burton, with Gabriel and Tarik Cohen pitching in there. 

So where does this leave the Bears if they indeed wind up drafting a receiver? They have a few options:

Anthony Miller, Memphis

Miller was hugely productive as a senior for the Tigers last year, catching 96 passes for 1,462 yards with 18 touchdowns while splitting time between the slot and outside. Those weren’t one-year wonder numbers, either: As a junior, Miller had 95 catches for 1,434 yards with 14 touchdowns. 

NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein projects the 5-foot-11, 190 pound Miller as a second or third round prospect, and crucially, the report on him is that he’s already a solid route runner. The biggest knock on his game is a few too many dropped passes, which shouldn’t be overlooked, and he may not carry with him a second-round grade. With the Bears not having a third-round pick, though, they may wind up over-drafting him or hoping he’s still on the board in the fourth round. 

James Washington, Oklahoma State

Like Miller, Washington is another hugely productive collegiate receiver with the ability to play both the slot and outside. At 6-foot, 205 pounds, he’s an explosive threat with big-play ability, but perhaps isn’t as good a route runner as Miller or some of the other prospects in this class (which could be the product of him playing in the defense-barren Big 12 for a high-octane spread offense at Oklahoma State). 

Washington, though, stood out at the Senior Bowl back in January. If he’s available when the Bears’ second-round pick comes around — which may not be the case — he’d seemingly be a good fit for what Nagy and Pace are looking for. 

D.J. Moore, Maryland

At 6-foot, 210 pounds, Moore fits the profile of an inside/outside guy and is viewed as a potential Day 1 prospect. That may make him too rich for the Bears’ liking — especially if they stay at No. 8 — but could make him an option in a trade-down or Day 2 scenario. 

Like Washington, he has some route-running questions, but his speed, quickness and athleticism make him an intriguing player if the Bears want to go with a receiver with one of their first two picks. 

Cedrick Wilson, Boise State

The 6-foot-3, 188 pounder is built more like Meredith, but if the Bears want to address that position through a mid-round pick, they could do worse than Wilson. He may not have the physical and athletic profile of Day 1 and 2 guys, but NFL.com describes him as a “nuanced route runner,” which should help his adjustment to the league. For what it’s worth, Pro Football Focus ranks him as the sixth-best receiver in this draft class, ahead of bigger names like Equanimeous St. Brown and Christian Kirk. 

Christian Kirk, Texas A&M

While Pro Football Focus indeed ranks Kirk only 10th among draft-eligible receivers, he’s the guy who could most fit the profile or being a better Albert Wilson. To wit: Wilson is 5-foot-9, 200 pounds; Kirk is 5-foot-10, 200 pounds. Wilson is regarded as a savvy route-runner who knows how to get open; Kirk flashed the traits in college to be the same at the NFL level. 

The issue with Kirk is that he’s more of a projection as an outside guy, having almost exclusively played out of the slot at Texas A&M. He’s another Day 1 trade-down possibility, or someone the Bears could grab on Day 2 if he’s still on the board. 

Will Devin Hester wind up being the last great kick returner in football history?

Will Devin Hester wind up being the last great kick returner in football history?

Devin Hester announced his retirement from the NFL last fall, and on Monday, signed a ceremonial one-day contract to officially retire as a member of the Chicago Bears. This was not an easy decision for the 35-year-old, who had to fight back tears while talking about saying no to football Monday at Halas Hall — Hester said the Philadelphia Eagles reached out to him after Darren Sproles suffered a season-ending injury last September.

But Hester firmly remained retired, opting to spend more time with his family in Orlando. And with Hester officially out of the game, it raises this question: Does he retire as the last great return man in NFL history?

“He changed the game,” said former teammate Matt Forte, who also signed a ceremonial one-day contract to retire with the Bears on Monday. “I mean, literally, changed the game. If you can affect the game like that, he’s gotta be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The definition of a Hall of Famer is somebody who changed the game — like defenses and coaches had to carve out certain time to assess that particular guy. There’s not going to be another Devin Hester ever, I don’t believe.”

Hester himself was a special player, returning an NFL record 20 punts, kicks and missed field goals for touchdowns. Forte may be right in that there will never be another player like him, even if the NFL stays the way it is now.

But no player may ever get the opportunity to be the next Devin Hester as the sport continues to evaluate the serious issue of head trauma. Kickoffs, in particular, are among the most dangerous plays for player safety, and the sport has continued to work on finding ways to increase touchbacks and decrease returns since moving kickoffs from the 30 to 35-yard line prior to the 2011 season.

The Ivy League, for example, saw a significant decline in concussions on kickoffs when it moved the kicking spot from the 35 to 40-yard line. But increasing touchbacks is an imperfect solution, as many around the league have pointed out, as some players may run at half-speed thinking there will be a touchback while others are still going full speed in case there isn’t.

While the NFL hasn’t considered banning kickoffs yet, it’s entirely fair to wonder if they’ll still be part of the sport’s highest level in the next five years. And that doesn’t sit well with Hester.

“It’s one of the key aspects to this ballgame, man,” Hester said. “This is football. You gotta let these guys play football and that, at the end of the day, brings a lot of excitement to a lot of fans out there.

“… This is a position. It’s how a lot of kids make a living, and at the end of the day it’s football, man. They’re trying to find ways to eliminate injuries but the moment you step on the field, you’re bound to get hurt somewhere. You can’t avoid injuries. That’s just the nature of the beast. And I think taking that out of the game, it’s big. I (wouldn’t) like to see it happen.”

For everyone invested in the sport, it’s a difficult topic: On one hand, a kick return touchdown is one of the more exciting things that can happen in a game (and it certainly was the highlight of the Bears’ last Super Bowl appearance). On the other, concussions are a serious threat to the game, and the NFL continues to try to create and enforce rules that are designed to limit them.

So Hester may wind up being the last great kick returner in NFL history, maybe football history. That should — emphasis on should, not will — be enough to get him inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, right?

“Sometimes you gotta put guys in the Hall of Fame for being the most dangerous person on the field,” Hester said.

And he could be the last person to be, as a kick returner, the most dangerous person on the field.

“It’s a big part of football, it’s one of the most exciting plays when you’re playing this game of football,” Hester said. “At the end of the day, if I’m the last, if I’m the one to be the best at the return game, it’s an honor. But at the same time, I want to continue to see it play out.”

Ranking the Bears' draft needs, from No. 13 to No. 1

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Ranking the Bears' draft needs, from No. 13 to No. 1

For all the positive vibes around Halas Hall during the dawn of the Matt Nagy era, the Bears still have plenty of needs as Ryan Pace enters his fourth draft as the team's general manager. And those needs provide a rough outline of what Pace's draft strategy from round one through round seven this week. 

Just because a position is a need doesn't mean Pace will use a high draft pick on it, given his larger strategy of taking the best player available. But the top needs on this list should be addressed by the time the draft wraps up on Saturday. 

13. Placekicker

Current depth: Cody Parkey

The Bears guaranteed $9 million to Parkey in his four-year, $15 million contract and don’t realistically have an out for him until 2020, according to Spotrac. He’s their kicker, and we won’t see any realistic competition for him come training camp. 

12. Tight end

Current depth: Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen, Dion Sims, Daniel Brown, Ben Braunecker, Colin Thompson

Given the investment in this position — a second-round pick in Shaheen and about $12 million against the cap for Burton and Sims — there’s not much room for another tight end near the top of the depth chart. The Bears value Brown and Braunecker’s contributions on special teams, too, so this depth chart looks relatively set in stone. 

11. Running back

Current depth: Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen, Benny Cunningham, Taquan Mizzell, Michael Burton

The big question here is what the Bears would do if Saquon Barkley were still on the board at No. 8. But no team is spending less money on running backs than the Bears are in 2018 ($1.96 million), and that’s with a 1,000-yard rusher in Howard and an explosive weapon in Cohen on the depth chart. Cunningham’s leadership and special teams skills are valued by those in the organization, from the front office to the locker room. 

To tie it back to Barkley: While Howard may not be a “complete” running back in the way Barkley could be, he has plenty of NFL tape and should benefit from running the ball in a less predictable offense this year. The guess is the Bears are fine with their running back depth chart, and would pass on Barkley unless there’s a consensus in their draft room that he’s a Hall of Famer. 

10. Quarterback

Current depth: Mitch Trubisky, Chase Daniel, Tyler Bray

Nagy likes having Daniel and Bray in place to work with Trubisky, given both those backups know the intricacies and language of his offense well from their time in Kansas City. The Bears could opt to draft a developmental quarterback with one of their final picks, or could target an undrafted free agent. Either way, the Bears will probably look to bring in at least one more quarterback, though we’re talking about a battle to be a third-stringer/practice squad guy at this point. 

9. Punter

Current depth: Pat O’Donnell

The Bears re-signed O’Donnell to a one-year deal with only $500,000 guaranteed, so they could look to bring in a punter — either via the draft or the undrafted free agent pool — to compete with him over the next few months. 

8. Defensive line

Current depth: Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Jonathan Bullard, Roy Robertson-Harris, John Jenkins, Nick Williams

Bullard is entering his third year in Vic Fangio’s defense, and showed flashes in 2017 of growing into the player the Bears hoped he’d be when they invested a third-round pick into him in 2016. Not re-signing Mitch Unrein — who was highly valued by Fangio and defensive line coach Jay Rodgers — could be taken as a sign that the Bears are ready to give Bullard a bigger role. But even if that’s the case, Bullard will have to earn it, and drafting some competition for him (and Robertson-Harris) could be part of the Bears’ draft plans. 

7. Cornerback

Current depth: Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara, Bryce Callahan, Marcus Cooper, Cre’von LeBlanc, Jonathan Mincy, Sherrick McManis, Doran Grant

The Bears invested quite a bit of money into keeping Fuller and Amukamara, and given the structures of their contracts are all but locked into that pairing until at least 2020, per Spotrac. Unless the Bears absolutely love someone like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward or Iowa’s Josh Jackson, the No. 8 pick won’t be used on a cornerback. But while there are plenty of bodies at this position, the Bears could use better depth here and could find that in the middle-to-late rounds of the draft. 

6. Safety

Current depth: Adrian Amos, Eddie Jackson, Deon Bush, DeAndre Houston-Carson, Deiondre' Hall

The solidity of the Amos-Jackson pairing means the Bears don’t have a pressing need at safety, but Amos is entering the final year of his rookie contract and is probably second in line behind Eddie Goldman to be signed to an extension, if he gets one at all. Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick and Florida State’s Derwin James both profile as big-time playmakers, which this defense still lacks. Pace has drafted a safety in the fourth round (Jackson, Bush) or fifth round (Amos) in every one of his drafts, and doing the same in 2018 would make some sense either to add depth or try to find an eventual replacement for Amos. 

5. Offensive tackle

Current depth: Charles Leno, Bobby Massie, Bradley Sowell, Brandon Greene, Travis Averill

Massie is entering the final year of his contract, and while he’s still on the roster now the Bears could still release him before, during or after training camp for a palatable cap hit of $1.5 million, per Spotrac. The No. 8 pick may be a little too rich for any of the tackles in this draft class, unless Harry Hiestand is pounding the table for Mike McGlinchey, his former Notre Dame left tackle. But a tackle could be in play in a trade-down scenario or as early as the second round to compete with Massie, who — it should be noted — was solid enough in 2017. 

4. Wide receiver

Current depth: Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Kevin White, Josh Bellamy, Bennie Fowler, Tanner Gentry, Demarcus Ayers

Do the Bears need at least one more wide receiver? Absolutely. Is it the most pressing need on the team? No. Think of it this way: The Bears signed their Nos. 1 and 2 receivers in Robinson (X) and Gabriel (Zebra), and Burton will spend plenty of time lined up in the slot. If that’s how the Bears were thinking, it would fit with the decision to let Cameron Meredith sign for $9.6 million with the New Orleans Saints over medical concerns (in short: That might’ve been too much money to commit to a No. 3/No. 4 target with knee issues). Whether or not that’s the right thinking is another question, but it could be a signal that the Bears don’t view wide receiver as a desperate, significant need. 

That being said, the Bears have invested so much into building the best structure possible around Trubisky that finding a “Z” receiver who can play both in the slot and outside is important in the draft. A second-round pick isn’t out of the question if the Bears identify someone worthy of that pick (like, perhaps, Memphis’ Anthony Miller). 

3. Inside linebacker

Current depth: Danny Trevathan, Nick Kwiatkoski, John Timu, Jonathan Anderson

Fangio likes Kwiatkoski and Trevathan is one of the most important players on the Bears’ defense. But that pair combined to miss nine games in 2017, and with Christian Jones signing with the Detroit Lions there’s a baseline need for more depth at this position. But Georgia’s Roquan Smith and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds both would represent upgrades here and could fit Pace’s best-player-available strategy. 

2. Interior offensive line

Current depth: Cody Whitehair, Kyle Long, Eric Kush, Earl Watford, Hroniss Grasu, Jordan Morgan, Cameron Lee

The Bears like Kush and Watford, but both players have spent their respective four seasons in the NFL largely as backups. They’re both good pieces to have, especially with Long missing 14 games in the last two years, but may be better served as backups. Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson would very much be in play if he’s on the board at No. 8, especially as the league may be moving away from devaluing interior positions in favor of valuing quality offensive line play no matter the position, which is becoming harder and harder to find. 

If not Nelson at No. 8, the pool of guards and centers who could still be available with the 38th pick is deep. The Bears unearthed Whitehair in the second round of the 2016 draft, and given the prominence in Nagy’s offense of inside zone runs — which go off the outside hip of a guard — could opt to use a top-40 pick to solidify the interior of their offensive line. 

1. Outside linebacker

Current depth: Leonard Floyd, Sam Acho, Aaron Lynch, Isaiah Irving, Howard Jones

As if the Bears needed a wakeup call here, Aaron Lynch’s ankle injury during Wednesday’s minicamp practice brought about this scenario: What if he and Floyd, who’ve combined to miss 28 games in the last two seasons, are out at the same time? Right now, that would put Acho and either Irving or Jones in starting roles, and it’s unlikely that pairing would result in much of a consistent pass rush. 

The gulf between the need for outside linebackers and interior offensive linemen is significant. This is a position that needs to be successfully addressed in the draft, otherwise there’s the potential that the Bears’ outside linebacker depth resembles last year’s wide receiver depth. 

Could Pace be aggressive for the third straight year and trade up to draft North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb? Would Boston College’s Harold Landry or UTSA’s Marcus Davenport be “overdrafted” at No. 8? Could Edmunds actually be an outside linebacker? Those are all significant questions for the Bears in the first round, but identifying and drafting other edge rushers is a must throughout the rest of the draft.