Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller, Cordarrelle Patterson and Riley Ridley are each all but assured of roster spots on the 2019 Bears. That leaves a deep group of players competing for, likely, one roster spot.
Javon Wims, Taquan Mizzell, Marvin Hall and Emanuel Hall are the biggest names in that group, which also includes Tanner Gentry, Thomas Ives and Jordan Williams-Lambert. Gentry is, notably, the only leftover from the Bears’ wide receiver room at this time in 2017.
Two years ago during OTAs, the biggest question surrounding Zach Azzani’s room was if an over-the-hill Victor Cruz would make the team. Now? It’s which youngsters with some promise won’t make the cut come September.
“This is the NFL, and we’re the Chicago Bears,” wide receivers coach Mike Furrey said, making a point larger than stating the obvious. “So realistically, we should have 10 guys in our room that have the opportunity to compete with everybody in that room. There shouldn’t be four guys and then a huge drop-off to the other six. We’re the Chicago Bears. Like, we’re in the NFL.”
Furrey is the first Bears receivers coach to return for his second year at that post since Mike Groh, who survived the Marc Trestman-to-John Fox transition for a year in 2015. He was followed by Curtis Johnson and Azzani, the latter of whom you might remember from some awkward moments with Kevin White during training camp in 2017.
Perhaps the most interesting competition that’ll play out in the coming months — outside of kicker, of course — will happen at the bottom of Furrey’s unit. That aforementioned battle for what might be one roster spot will be heated during training camp: Each of the unreleated Halls possess top-notch speed, while Wims flashed a few times when given opportunities last year at the very start (in the Hall of Fame preseason game) and very end (Week 17 against the Vikings) of the season.
“If you look at every single guy in our room right now, every single one of them could have long careers in this league,” Furrey said. “And that’s what you want. And that makes it hard on us to figure that out but again, you’re in the NFL, that’s what it should be like.”
That’s not what it’s always been like for the Bears, though. Consider what the members of that 2017 wide receiver room have done since the end of that season:
Kendall Wright (59 receptions): Did not play in 2018. He was released by the Vikings on cut-down day, then was signed and cut/waived twice by the Arizona Cardinals. He remains an unsigned free agent.
Josh Bellamy (24 receptions): Caught 14 passes for the Bears in 2018 while serving as a core special teamer. He signed a two-year, $7 million deal with the cap space-rich New York Jets as a free agent in March.
Dontrelle Inman (23 receptions): The Bears’ mid-season acquisition was out of the NFL until last October, when he signed with the Indianapolis Colts. He caught 28 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns for Frank Reich's postseason-bound side, and caught all eight targets for 108 yards with a score in two playoff games in January. Inman signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the New England Patriots in the offseason.
Deonte Thompson (11 receptions): Thompson was released by the Bears after appearing in five games, then went on to be the playoff-bound Buffalo Bills’ most productive wide receiver in 2017 with 27 catches for 430 yards with one touchdown. He appeared in eight games with the Dallas Cowboys in 2018 before being cut and winding back up in Buffalo. The 30-year-old is now with the New York Jets.
Tre McBride (eight receptions): Most notably, McBride and Bellamy got in a verbal altercation just outside the old Halas Hall wide receivers room — which was right across the hall from the media room. McBride was cut in November of 2017 and hasn’t played in the NFL since, and was waived by Washington in April after he signed a reserve/future contract there in January.
Tanner Gentry (three receptions): The Bourbonnais fan favorite hung around the practice squad last year and remains with the team in 2019. He does, effectively, still have one more year of practice squad eligibility left, though he may face stiffer competition this year just to make the practice squad once the preseason ends.
Markus Wheaton (three receptions): One of Ryan Pace’s bigger free-agent busts, Wheaton couldn’t stay healthy in 2017 and turned in one of the worst seasons a wide receiver has had since 1992. He played three total snaps for the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1 of the 2018 season and remains unsigned.
Kevin White (two receptions): He was healthy for the entire 2018 season, yet was inactive for seven games and only caught four of eight targets. White signed a one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals in March.
Cameron Meredith (zero receptions): The Bears declined to match the New Orleans Saints’ two-year, $9.6 million offer sheet for Meredith last spring, opting to use a second-round pick on Miller to replace him. Pace’s plan proved to be sound, too: Meredith only appeared in six games for the Saints last year due to a host of injuries, and had a scope on the same knee he injured with the Bears in that preseason game against the Tennessee Titans. He took a $2.1 million paycut this offseason and has yet to return to practice during OTAs.
Victor Cruz (zero receptions): Cruz never played in the NFL again after being cut by the Bears and officially announced his retirement last August. He’s now an analyst for ESPN.
Daniel Braverman, Titus Davis, Alton Howard (zero receptions): None of these players have appeared in the NFL since being released by the Bears on cut-down day in 2017. Braverman, a 2016 sixth-round pick, was most recently released from the Cardinals’ practice squad last December.
A thought here, which leads to another thought: There’s been some excitement over the last month about Emanuel Hall, the undrafted speed burner from Mizzou, even if he doesn’t have a clear path to making the Bears. He hasn’t participated in either of the OTAs open to the media in the last two weeks, making his uphill climb a little steeper when training camp begins in July.
But two years ago, had the Bears had a player with Hall’s pedigree in camp, he would’ve had a path to not only making the team, but being one of Mitch Trubisky’s top targets his rookie year.
Hall said he chose to sign with the Bears despite the loaded depth chart ahead of him largely because of Furrey — an awfully complimentary comment for a position coach. So the second thought: While the Bears’ talent at receiver is far better than it was two years ago, don’t discount Furrey’s impact on building the strength of this group.
“I want my guys to be selfish to become unselfish,” Furrey said. “I want them to go build their careers and be the best they can be and become better. That’s going to help us, unselfishly, as a football team.
“And so that’s kind of the mindset of me as a position coach when I’m sitting there thinking hey, okay, how do we do this, how do we do that, well let’s get this guy reps, let’s make sure everybody’s even-keel right now. And so if everybody else can see in this room that it’s not a drop-off from sixth to seventh, so the top six get all the reps. Right now we want to make sure everybody knows that everybody can play in that room. And if you don’t want to study, if you don’t want to learn what you’re supposed to be doing, if you don’t want to show up and be where you’re supposed to be when the play is called, next guy up. That’s a pretty good deal to have.”
Or, as Furrey re-iterated: “This is the NFL. This is the Chicago Bears. So we need to have 10 guys in our room every year that are competing for those spots, and that’ll make us better and make our football team better.”