Cameron Meredith

The Bears were right to let Cam Meredith go…and to draft Anthony Miller 

The Bears were right to let Cam Meredith go…and to draft Anthony Miller 

Cameron Meredith is one of those guys you love to root for — a local kid who scrapped his way onto the Bears’ roster as an undrafted free agent, then put together a promising second season (66 catches, 888 yards) and was seemingly on his way to being a big part of a long-hoped-for offensive turnaround in Chicago. 

So when Ryan Pace and the Bears did not place a second-round tender on Meredith, and then decided against matching the New Orleans Saints’ two-year, $9.5 million offer sheet for him, it felt like an odd decision at the time. Here’s what was written on this site, by this author, about the move:

“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.”

Consider this, then, a mea culpa: Pace made the correct call on three fronts: 1) not placing a second-round tender on Meredith, 2) not matching the Saints’ offer sheet and 3) filling Meredith’s void by drafting Anthony Miller. There’s no second-guessing here. 

Had Pace put that second-round tender on Meredith, no team would’ve approached him with an offer sheet — the knee injury he, cruelly, suffered in the 2017 preseason was serious enough to overlook his productive 2016. It only would’ve cost the Bears an additional $1 million to put that second-round tender on him, but then they would’ve been stuck with a guy who wasn’t healthy while making a shade under $3 million. 

Meredith was inactive for the Saints’ first two games of the season, and while his snap count and usage increased from Weeks 3-5 — finishing with a five-catch, 71-yard showing against Washington — that Oct. 8 game was the last time he was targeted. After playing 86 snaps in his first three games, Meredith only played 40 snaps in his last three before being shut down for the season. 

But it’s not just that the Bears made the right call to let Meredith go. Replacing him with an over-the-hill Dez Bryant might’ve been fine, but a better option would be an improving rookie draft pick. 

And Miller, who the Bears drafted by trading a fourth round pick to the New England Patriots to get back into the second round, is playing like he’s just that. 

Miller caught a career-high five passes for 49 yards against the Buffalo Bills last week, and has consistently been running open since returning from a shoulder injury after the Bears’ off week. Had Mitch Trubisky made accurate throws, Miller probably could’ve had three touchdowns in Week 7 against the Patriots, for example. 

“He’s got it physically, we all know that,” wide receivers coach Mike Furrey said. “But I think from the mental aspect of understanding the concept of our schemes, understanding defenses, understanding holes now — kind of how to slow down against certain coverages and all that good stuff. It’s starting to slow down, the game is starting to slow down for him. And he’s just, every week, he’s grinding to get better. 

“He’s in the film room more because he can understand it now. He can study the opponents, he can know if it’s single high or if it’s shell and all that good stuff that helps you out and kind of gives you a tidbit here before we go, before you start, and he’s done a great job of that and hopefully — he will continue to improve on that.”

The Trubisky-Miller partnership, too, is one that could be a boon for the Bears’ offense for not only 2018, but for at least the next three seasons. 

“He’s done a great job digesting all of it and just figuring out where he fits in all the concepts — how to run routes against man and against zone — and he puts his own little flavor on everything. So we just got to continue to get him the ball in open space, find those mismatches when a guy is on him and then take advantage of it. But he's done a great job. He's continuously getting better each week. And the more that me and him can throw and get on the same page and continue to build that great chemistry, the better we'll get as an offense. 

The Bears liked Meredith, and gave him the respect of telling him in person that his hometown team wouldn’t be matching New Orleans’ offer back in April. Pace and this coaching staff would’ve been happy to see him be healthy and succeed with Drew Brees in New Orleans. 

But keeping him, as it turns out, very well could’ve held this offense back. Instead of an ascending Miller, the Bears would have to overcome an injured Meredith. 

So give Pace and the Bears’ front office credit. The move that was called the Bears’ biggest offseason mistake actually wasn’t a mistake at all.

Cameron Meredith dubbed Chicago Bears' biggest offseason mistake

Cameron Meredith dubbed Chicago Bears' biggest offseason mistake

The Chicago Bears have an exciting wide receiver room this season with the additions of Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller. Former first-round pick Kevin White is even getting some love in offseason workouts. But could the depth chart have been even better?

According to Bleacher Report, GM Ryan Pace's decision to let Cameron Meredith leave town was the team's biggest offseason mistake.

The Bears don't appear to have made many mistakes this offseason, but letting restricted free agent Cam Meredith get away could come back to bite general manager Ryan Pace. 

While Meredith missed the entire 2017 season after suffering a horrific knee injury during the preseason, he looked like a breakout star in 2016. The Illinois State product caught 66 passes for 888 yards and four scores that season, despite playing mostly with backups Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley.

Pace's approach to Meredith was a curious one. Whether it was the receiver's poor fit in the new offense or a concern about his recovery from knee surgery, the same issues or concerns could be raised about Robinson, whom the Bears signed to a three-year, $42 million deal. Both Robinson and Meredith are now participating in on-field drills which suggests their scheduled recovery time is pretty similar.

Meredith had a breakout season in 2016, the year that was supposed to belong to White. Meredith quickly developed into the offense's primary target after White fractured his ankle in Week 4. He finished the year with 66 catches for 888 yards and four touchdowns and was a popular choice to emerge as one of the league's top young receivers in 2017. Then came the devastating preseason knee injury.

The Bears began the offseason with a clear plan and it's pretty obvious that Meredith was never a big part of it. The speed at which Pace acted to sign Robinson and Gabriel, while Meredith remained dangling as a restricted free agent, is proof of that.

Meredith should enjoy a productive season with the Saints. In fact, he could end up with better numbers than one or more of the Bears' starters. If that happens, Pace will have even more questions to answer about why he let him go.

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.