Cameron Meredith

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. 

Under Center Podcast: Bears let Cam Meredith walk

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USA TODAY

Under Center Podcast: Bears let Cam Meredith walk

The Bears declined to match the Saints 2-year, $9.6M offer for WR Cam Meredith.

Why didn’t the Bears just essentially take him off the market for an extra million dollars in the first place? Bears Insider JJ Stankevitz joins Slavko Bekovic and Paul Aspan to explain, plus what it means for the Bears draft, WR depth, and Kevin White.

Take a listen here or in the embedded player below.

Bears letting Cameron Meredith sign with New Orleans has big implications for draft, Kevin White

Bears letting Cameron Meredith sign with New Orleans has big implications for draft, Kevin White

The Bears on Wednesday declined to match the New Orleans Saints’ two-year, $9.6 million offer sheet to Cameron Meredith, a source confirmed, meaning the wide receiver will have Drew Brees throwing to him in 2018, not Mitch Trubisky.

The surface-level optics of this decision could look bad for Ryan Pace if Meredith bounces back from his serious knee injury with production that matches or exceeds his breakout 2016 (66 catches, 888 yards). Not only was Meredith a productive, versatile receiver two years ago (he almost equally split time between playing outside and in the slot), but he’s a Berwyn native and Illinois State product who was mined as an undrafted free agent in 2015. 

Feel-good stories don’t supersede football decisions, of course. Perhaps the Bears weren’t sold on Meredith’s medicals, or the prospect of having their two top receivers both coming off torn ACLs (with Allen Robinson the other). Meredith's injury, though, also included MCL damage. 

Or perhaps the 6-foot-3, 200 pound Meredith doesn’t fit what Matt Nagy and Mark Helfrich are looking for, in addition to the team's medical evaluation. That Pace and Nagy reportedly met with Meredith on Tuesday to inform him of the decision is a signal they're on the same page on this decision. 

But whatever the reason, the Bears now have a clear need for a wide receiver. And Ryan Pace has opened himself up for plenty of second-guessing after committing so many resources to building the best possible structure around Trubisky this offseason. The Bears could've ensured Meredith would be on the team in 2018 had they placed a second-round tender on him, which cost about $1 million more than the original round tender but would've cost whatever team signed him a second-round draft pick.

Meredith's deal with the Saints is reportedly for two years and $9.6 million, with $5.4 million guaranteed. Had the Bears matched the Saints' offer sheet, they would've moved up to third in the NFL in wide receiver spending. 

For the 2018 roster, Kevin White’s brutal injury history means counting on him as a starter — as was the case last year — is risky, even with better weapons at Trubisky’s disposal in Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton. Those three players, along with Adam Shaheen, Tarik Cohen and to a lesser extent, Jordan Howard, give the Bears plenty of flexibility of how they can line up, and Gabriel’s ability to play both inside and outside would mitigate some of the risk with White. It’s worth noting only about one-third of the routes ran by Tyreek Hill — the “Zebra” receiver in Kansas City’s offense last year — were from the slot. 

Whatever receiver, or receivers, the Bears wind up drafting, he’ll have to be two things: First, able to play both outside and in the slot; and two, ready to compete with White during training camp for playing time. There’s probably not a receiver out there worth the No. 8 overall pick — that looks a little too rich for Alabama’s Calvin Ridley — but nabbing one with a second-round pick is in play with Meredith gone. 

The Bears still may have enough targets to make life easier for Trubisky this year, even without Meredith. But letting him walk and, presumably, looking to replace him through the draft does carry some risk — this is a decision that could backfire on Pace.