What Javon Wims' big game means for his future with the Bears, or in the NFL

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What Javon Wims' big game means for his future with the Bears, or in the NFL

CANTON, Ohio — Javon Wims grew up idolizing how Randy Moss played the game, so getting to share the same field for a brief moment with the soon-to-be Hall of Famer on Thursday night was a special moment for the seventh-round rookie. 

“It was amazing to see somebody I looked up to since I was a kid,” Wims said. “One of the reasons I played receiver is because of the things he was able to do.”

After the pregame festivities ended, Wims perhaps had the best night of any offensive player on either the Bears or Ravens in Thursday’s Hall of Fame Game. He showed strong hands and the go-up-and-get-it ability he put on tape at Georgia, and finished the day with seven catches on 10 targets for 89 yards. 

There’s no sweeping conclusion to be made off Wims’ strong performance, though, given it came against second/third/fourth-stringers in a game in which neither side did any gameplanning. Him catching seven passes for 89 yards in a bonus preseason game won't get him on the Bears' Week 1 roster. 

Still, anytime a player produces in a game, it’s a positive, coach Matt Nagy said. 

“Javon is a kid that has excellent hand, really, really good hands, phenomenal ball skills,” Nagy said. “And he showed that in college. Now he’s a receiver that’s a good route-runner, he can become better, he knows that. Again, when you get out on the stage and get some guys that are going to come up and press you, how are you going to play agains the press. I thought he made some big-time catches over the middle in crucial situations. He’s a big target, so it’s nice throwing to big guys.”

Wims will continue to face an uphill climb to a roster spot, with four receivers (Allen Robinson, Kevin White, Anthony Miller, Taylor Gabriel) well ahead of him on the depth chart and Josh Bellamy serving as a key contributor on special teams. So Wims is competing with guys like Bennie Fowler, Tanner Gentry and Marlon Brown to potentially force Nagy to take a sixth receiver. 

But what Wims did on Thursday was significant in that it wasn’t a practice in Bourbonnais, the film of which only the Bears have access to. Any of the other 31 teams in the NFL, some of whom likely scouted Wims when he was in college, could’ve seen something they liked, whether it was Wims’ hands, ball skills, route running, etc. That may make it more tricky if the Bears hope to stash Wims on their practice squad come cut-down day. 

In the big picture of 2018 for the Bears, it’s probably not a big deal if Wims does or doesn’t stick (the same could be said for Gentry a year ago after his good preseason didn’t result in a Week 1 roster spot). Most seventh-round picks don't, or if they do, they're hardly key contributors in Year 1 -- though general manager Ryan Pace has seen a seventh-round rookie receiver have a huge impact as a rookie with the New Orleans Saints when Marques Colston had 70 catches for 1,038 yards in 2006 (this is not saying Wims will be the next Colston, not by any stretch).  

But for Wims, these next few weeks are his best — and perhaps only — chance to prove to the Bears or another team around the NFL that he deserves a shot. Wims, though, is doing what he can to not look at things that way, trusting that if he continues to do what he’s done to date he’ll get his opportunity in the league. 

“I don’t view it, I don’t pay attention to it,” Wims said. “That’s out of my control. The only thing I can control is going out there, getting better every day, learning, becoming a sponge, soaking up as much information as I can get and putting out a good effort.” 

Why what 'Run DMC' does catching passes in training camp will be a big clue for how good the Bears' offense will be

Why what 'Run DMC' does catching passes in training camp will be a big clue for how good the Bears' offense will be

How much better Mitch Trubisky will be is the defining question for the 2019 Bears. But we won’t begin to know the answer to that question until September — it’s not something that’ll be easily discernible during training camp practices in Bourbonnais or a handful of snaps in preseason games. Those can sometimes produce false positives and false negatives.

The Bears believe in Trubiskiy, of course, and you’ll likely hear Matt Nagy and players laud their quarterback’s growth over the coming weeks. But belief is one thing; tangible production is another. And we won’t truly get to see that growth until the night of Sept. 5 at Soldier Field. 

But there are a few things to look for in Bourbonnais that could clue us in that a big-time leap is coming for No. 10. We’ll begin this mini-series leading up to the start of training camp next week with this: Better success from running backs catching passes on first down. 

It’s a narrowly specific angle, but one that carries plenty of weight. Consider this excerpt from Warren Sharp’s 2019 Football Preview:

“First down has long been perceived as a running down. In 2017, the league-wide average run-pass split on first down was 47-53. It was 50-50 last season, but that was still well below the 59-41 league-wide split on all downs. Yet passing to running backs on first down is significantly more effective.

“In 2018, there were 6,248 running back rushing attempts on first down. They averaged 4.5 yards per carry, minus-0.01 Expected Points Added per attempt, and a positive play rate of 41.3%. When teams threw to running backs on first down, they averaged 6.02 yards per target, 7.8 yards per receptions. 0.08 EPA per attempt — slightly more efficient than the average of all passes regardless of down at 0.05 EPA — and a positive play rate of 52.3%.”

The larger point here (especially if your eyes glazed over some of those numbers — which, we promise, make sense) is this: Scheming more throws to running backs on first down is an area in which almost every team in the NFL can improve. It's worth noting the Kansas City Chiefs' most effective play on first-and-long in 2018, per Sharp, was a pass to Kareem Hunt. 

And the good news is the Bears re-worked their running back room in a way that could optimize their success throwing the ball to David Montgomery, Mike Davis and Tarik Cohen on first down. 

The 2018 Bears simply didn’t have the personnel to do that regularly or successfully.

Jordan Howard was only targeted nine times on first-and-10, catching five passes for 42 yards. All nine of those targets were short throws, either to the left (two), middle (one) or right (six), and Trubisky had a passer rating of 83 on those attempts. Meanwhile, Howard carried the ball 128 times on first-and-10, averaging 3.7 yards per carry and only generating nine first downs (the NFL average for rushing attempts on first-and-10 in 2018 was 4.7 yards per carry). 

Cohen was, roughly, the inverse of Howard’s numbers: He caught 30 of 37 targets for 241 yards (6.5 yards per target) and generated seven first downs through the air, but averaged just 3.2 yards on his 46 rushing attempts with four first downs. Neither player was particularly balanced in these scenarios: Howard was mildly ineffective running the ball and not a threat catching it; Cohen was largely ineffective running the ball but was a threat catching it. 

And for the crowd who still believes Nagy wasn’t willing to establish the run: The combined rushing attempts on first-and-10 of Howard, Cohen, Benny Cunningham and Taquan Mizzell totaled 182; the combined pass attempts by Trubisky and Chase Daniel in that down-and-distance was 176, per Pro Football Reference’s play index. 

The Bears, in 2018, averaged 5.5 yards per play on first-and-10, tied for 24th in the NFL. Yet only three teams — the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts — averaged fewer yards-to-go on third down than the Bears’ mark of 6.9. That’s a sign of Nagy’s playcalling prowess and the talent on this offense, and it’s not a stretch to argue an improvement of first-and-10 success will have a significant impact on the overall success of the Bears’ offense. 

So back to the initial point about passes to running backs in these situations: The Bears believe both Montgomery and Davis have some untapped potential as pass-catching running backs. Montgomery caught 71 passes in college at Iowa State, while Davis was targeted the most by the Seattle Seahawks in 2018 on first down (17 of 42 targets). Cohen, of course, is already an accomplished pass-catcher. 

The “Run DMC” backfield needs to have more success carrying the ball on first-and-10 than last year’s group did, of course. But if you’re in Bourbonnais or watching a preseason game, keep an eye out for how effective the Bears are at passing to their running backs — especially if those passes travel beyond the line of scrimmage (another inefficiency noted by Warren Sharp's 2019 Football Preview). 

If you start seeing Montgomery making defenders miss after catching a pass, or Davis looking fluid with the ball in his hands, or Cohen breaking off some explosive gains — those will be significant reasons to believe in Trubisky and the Bears' offense in 2019. 

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Under Center Podcast: State of the Bears: Defense


Under Center Podcast: State of the Bears: Defense

JJ Stankevitz, Cam Ellis and Paul Aspan are back with their training camp preview of the Bears' defense, looking at if it's fair to expect this group to take a step back without Vic Fangio (2:00) or if it's possible to repeat as the league's No. 1 defense (10:00). Plus, the guys look at which players the Bears need to improve to remain one of the NFL's best defenses (15:15), debate if Leonard Floyd can be better (20:00) and look at the future of the defense as a salary cap crunch looms after 2019 (25:00). 

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below: