Bears

Bears grades and needs: Do Robinson, top WRs have another gear in 2019?

Bears grades and needs: Do Robinson, top WRs have another gear in 2019?

2018 Depth Chart

1. Allen Robinson
Usage: 13 games, 71.2 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $15 million cap hit

From a production standpoint, Robinson’s 94 targets, 55 receptions, 754 yards and four touchdowns aren’t eye-popping for a guy on a three-year, $42 million contract. But his averages weren’t all that far off from what he did in 2016. To compare:

2016: 12.1 yards/reception, 4.6 receptions/game, 55.2 yards/game, 48.3 catch percentage, 0.4 TDs/game

2018: 13.7 yards/reception, 4.2 receptions/game, 58 yards/game, 58.5 catch percentage, 0.3 TDs/game

Robinson did miss three games with groin and rib injuries, limiting his overall numbers. But if what he did in 2018 is the baseline for his time in Chicago, that’s not a bad thing — especially because there are reasons to believe Robinson can be even better in 2019. 

The No. 1 reason, which Robinson pointed out a day after the Bears’ season ended, is he’ll begin this year’s offseason program in April fully healthy, as opposed to a year ago when he was still rehabbing the torn ACL that ended his 2017 season in Week 1. 

“Just being able to go into OTAs and training camp and having that time period to be at 100 percent, to be able to condition myself for a whole season, just being able to prepare a lot better,” Robinson said. “Being able to not be just worried about getting back on the field and playing and running routes at about 60, 70, 80, 85 percent. Being able to do that at 100 percent and getting those 100 percent quality reps is going to be big.”

Robinson broke a franchise record with 143 receiving yards in the wild card loss to the Eagles, with the 33 yards he gained on consecutive catches getting the Bears into field goal range for Cody Parkey’s ill-fated double-doink. The connection he showed with Mitch Trubisky in a brief playoff appearance was encouraging, and expectations in 2019 should be high for a guy who doesn’t turn 26 until a few weeks before the season begins.  

2. Taylor Gabriel
Usage: 16 games, 77.2 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $6.5 million cap hit

Gabriel blew past his career highs in targets (93; previous high: 72), receptions (67; previous high: 36), yards (688; previous high: 621), catch percentage (72, previous high: 70) and offensive snaps (830; previous high: 61.2). Gabriel had six receptions of 30 or more yards, and flashed some impressive downfield ball skills on tough 40-plus yard grabs against the Dolphins (twice) and Vikings. 

Over half of Gabriel’s receptions on third down generated a first down, with the 5-foot-8, 165 pound receiver displaying strong hands and slick route running to become a favorite target of Trubisky’s when he needed to gain tough yardage. Gabriel’s catch percentage ranked 14th among qualified receivers in 2018. 

With opposing defenses often working to take away the deep ball from Trubisky’s arsenal, Gabriel didn't have a ton of downfield opportunities (he averaged a little under one target of 20 or more yards downfield per game, per PFF). He wasn’t able to do much after the catch, either — per NFL’s Next Gen Stats, he had the league’s third-worst difference in his average yards after the catch per reception (3.6) to his expected YAC per reception (5.1), though that number is likely skewed by some of the screens and short throws that required better blocking execution around him. 

Even if Gabriel’s statistical profile may not show it, he remains a speedy, versatile threat who Matt Nagy surely will try to do more things with in 2019. This is a guy nicknamed “Turbo,” after all. 

3. Anthony Miller
Usage: 15 games, 53.6 percent of offensive snaps, 9.2 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $1,216,750 cap hit

Miller may miss some or all of OTAs and minicamp after undergoing offseason surgery to repair his shoulder, which separated twice during the season (including once while he was carrying an end-around against the Vikings in Week 17). Miller, though, wore a shoulder harness and battled his way through the season, playing in 15 games and leading the Bears with seven receiving touchdowns. 

Miller did disappear within the offense for a three-week stretch in December, only receiving three targets against the Giants, Rams and Packers. But that stretch didn’t change the team’s long-term outlook for the former second-round pick. 

“We probably overloaded him to some extent in the middle of the season because we, ‘Oh, my gosh, throw everything at him!’ And we kind of throttled that back a little bit,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said in the midst of that December stretch. “People adjusted to him, you know. For a while it was, ‘Hey, let’s cover this guy. Or double this guy. Or what about this guy?’ So he’s been played a little bit differently but very, very excited about his future.”

4. Josh Bellamy 
Usage: 16 games, 29.9 percent of offensive snaps, 57.8 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

“Beezo” will hit free agency as one of the most popular, universally-respected players in the Bears’ locker room. He’s a core special teamer and has the flexibility to play all three receiver positions in Nagy’s offense. 

While Bellamy did mis-handle a Trubisky pass that led to an interception against the Patriots in October, he only had one other drop during the season, per PFF. He’s much better suited for the role he played in 2018 — fourth/fifth receiver, core special teamer — than having to be relied upon as a top-three receiver, which he had to be frequently during the John Fox era. His offensive usage rate in 2018 was the lowest in his four-year tenure with the Bears. 

That’s all to say it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bears retain Bellamy in free agency next month. 

5. Kevin White
Usage: 9 games, 15.9 percent of offensive snaps, 1.2 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

White’s future with the Bears was sealed in Week 9, when he was among the inactives for a game against the Buffalo Bills in which Robinson (who, to be fair, played a different receiver position) was inactive as well. Nagy hoped having White focus on playing on position — he was the backup to Gabriel — would allow him to being to seize on the potential that led Ryan Pace to draft him seventh overall in 2015. That didn’t happen. 

White was healthy for the entire 2018 season, which was a positive, but was only targeted eight times. Some team will take a flier on him in free agency, but he’ll face an uphill battle to earn an active roster spot wherever he lands. 

6. Javon Wims
Usage: 4 games, 2.8 percent of offensive snaps, 1.2 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $593,978 cap hit

Wims is an intriguing prospect with good size (6-foot-4, 215 pounds), good hands and good ball skills. Still, he wasn’t able to crack the Bears’ receiver rotation and was only active for one-quarter of the team’s games. 

Still, WIms likely left a positive impression on coaches with two tough catches on third down against the Vikings in Week 17. He’ll be given an opportunity to move up the depth chart during the offseason program and OTAs, but he’ll have to show improvement as a route runner to assure himself of a roster spot in 2019. 

7. Tanner Gentry
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

The Bears likely will bring in a few other receivers for camp competition with Wims and/or to replace White on the roster, with Gentry being a part of that competition. The Bears liked him enough to keep him on the practice squad all season and give him a reserve/future contract, but the 2017 training camp fan favorite has a long way to go to earn a roster spot. 

8. Cyril Grayson
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

Grayson actually has a fascinating background: He’s a former track star who ran a 4.33 40-yard dash at LSU’s pro day in 2017, landing him a contract with the Seahawks despite not playing a down of football since his senior year of high school in 2011. The Bears signed him to their practice squad in November and will keep him around as their roster swells for training camp. 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 3

The Bears have decisions to make on Bellamy and the depth behind Robinson/Gabriel/Miller. Drafting a receiver wouldn’t be out of the question if there’s someone scouts like, but this isn’t a position at which the Bears will spend much in free agency outside of retaining Bellamy and/or bringing in some cheap veteran competition for training camp. 

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Chicago Bears Free Agent Focus: Eric Ebron

Chicago Bears Free Agent Focus: Eric Ebron

Stop me if you've heard this one before: The Bears need a tight end.

It's a narrative that started bubbling since the middle of the 2019 regular season when it became apparent that neither Trey Burton nor Adam Shaheen was the answer at the position for the Bears. Coach Matt Nagy was forced to turn to undrafted rookie Jesper Horsted and little-known veteran J.P. Holtz to find production for his offense. It was a big problem for Nagy, whose system calls for a playmaking tight end like Travis Kelce to hit its maximum potential.

To be fair, there's only a few at that level (Kelce, George Kittle and Zach Ertz) in the league right now. But the Bears have to do their due diligence this offseason to try and find a 'lite' version of that guy. One player in free agency who has a resume of recent production as a pass-catcher to maybe be 'that guy' is Eric Ebron, who's coming off of a down year with the Colts.

Ebron appeared in just 11 games last season and finished with 31 catches for 375 yards and three touchdowns. It was a stark contrast from 2018 when he scored 13 touchdowns and was one of the NFL's best playmakers at the position.

RELATED: Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

The problem with Ebron as a viable target for Chicago is that his tenure in the league produced more seasons like 2019 than 2018, but his pedigree as a former top-10 pick with high-end athletic traits warrants at least a look for a possible one-year prove-it deal.

At 26 years old, Ebron still has a lot of good football left in his legs. His market value should come in lower than Burton's $8 million per season; according to Spotrac, Ebron's expected contract this offseason will pay him around $7.5 million per year. Compared to the likely cost for players like Austin Hooper (Falcons) and Hunter Henry (Chargers), Ebron will be a bargain.

Ryan Pace will be bargain shopping in March, and Ebron may end up on the discount rack after the first wave of free agency concludes. Teams will be hesitant to offer him the kind of multi-year deal he's going to seek, which will give the Bears a chance to swoop in and lure him with the prove-it theory. He's young enough to earn a lucrative contract in 2021 if he posts big-time numbers in 2020, which Nagy's offense will give him the chance to do if he stays healthy.

Even the worst version of Ebron is better than the best of what Chicago has on its roster right now. He should rank highly on their offseason wish list, assuming his market remains where it logically should.

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Chicago Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

Chicago Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

The Bears have been connected to all of the big-name free agent quarterbacks this offseason. General manager Ryan Pace is expected to add competition for the starting job in free agency or the 2020 NFL draft after incumbent and former second overall pick, Mitch Trubisky, regressed mightily in his third season last year.

But rather than focus on players like Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and even Marcus Mariota, it makes more sense to pay close attention to the next tier of free agent passers who could offer a potential upgrade from Trubisky while not necessarily creating shockwaves through Halas Hall upon signing.

One quarterback who fits that description perfectly is Case Keenum, the journeyman starter who's entering his 10th season in the league. 

Keenum is coming off of back-to-back forgettable seasons with the Broncos and Redskins, but it wasn't long ago when he was one of the better storylines in the NFL after leading the Vikings to 11 wins in 14 starts in 2017. He threw for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions that year and earned himself a respectable two-year, $36 million contract with Denver in 2018. His tenure as a Bronco lasted just one season (he finished 2018 with a 6-10 record) and his time as the Redskins starter was short-lived in 2019. He started just eight games for Washington.

For his career, Keenum's completed 62.4% of his passes and has thrown 75 touchdowns compared to 47 interceptions.

Keenum's resume isn't overly impressive, which is why he's a great fit for what Pace should try to accomplish over the next two months. He has to find a competent starter who can take advantage of everything else the Bears have going for them (namely, a championship-caliber defense) and who can be aggressive enough on offense to score enough points to win the close games. Keenum proved in 2017 that he can do that, especially when he has a good supporting case around him.

Keenum also qualifies as a solid bridge quarterback in the event Trubisky crashes and burns in 2020. At 32 years old, he's young enough to keep the starting job for a couple of seasons while Chicago attempts to find a younger long-term answer under center. 

Last but not least, he's going to be cheap. He didn't have a good year in 2019, and he was making just $3.5 million with the Redskins. There will be a limited market for his services this March, which means the Bears should be able to land him at a backup's salary despite his starter's upside. And that matters, especially for a team that's trying to free up salary cap space for other positions of need along the offensive line and secondary.

Keenum won't move the needle much for Bears fans in March, but landing a player of his caliber could ultimately be the difference between the Bears missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season and making a deep playoff run.