Riley Ridley

Bears' 2019 rookie class ranked 3rd-best in NFC North

Bears' 2019 rookie class ranked 3rd-best in NFC North

The 2020 NFL Draft is just over two months away, with the NFL Scouting Combine next up on the draft calendar two weeks from now. But before we can look ahead to April's incoming class for the Bears, we must first look back on how 2019's rookie class panned out for a team that failed to meet expectations in almost every way.

This year will mark the second straight draft that the Bears will be without a first-round pick because of the September 2018 trade for Khalil Mack. The 2020 draft has more optimism around it because Chicago does have two picks in the top 50 (Nos. 43 and 50), but it's still without the sparkle of the first-round savior. And as we saw from the 2019 class, that means something.

Ryan Pace's first selection in 2019 wasn't until the third round when he traded up for running back David Montgomery. All things considered, Montgomery had a strong first year, running for 889 yards and six touchdowns, and it was because of him that Chicago's rookie class earned a C+ from NFL.com.

Besides Montgomery's production, the Bears didn't get much of anything out of the rookie class. This isn't all that surprising, considering Chicago made just five selections last April, with Montgomery being the only player taken before Day 3 of the draft. Coming out of Georgia, (Riley) Ridley was advertised as a polished route runner -- like his brother, Calvin -- but he couldn't even crack the game day roster until Week 13. Adding insult to ineffectiveness: The very next two wideouts selected after Ridley -- Hunter Renfrow and Darius Slayton -- provided significant Year 1 contributions.

Only the Lions' rookie class received a worse grade (C) than the Bears. The Packers (B+) and Vikings (B-) enjoyed positive returns from their first-year players, which isn't too surprising considering each team had successful playoff runs in 2019.

The lack of production from Ridley (six catches for 69 yards) was a big disappointment for the Bears, but he did flash upside toward the end of the season and should be a bigger factor in the passing game in 2020. That said, the rest of the rookie group wasn't great, and the more bad drafts Pace stacks together, the worse this team will slowly but surely become.

The rest of Chicago's 2019 rookie class included cornerback Duke Shelley, running back Kerrith Whyte, defensive back Stephen Denmark, and undrafted free agent tight end Jesper Horsted.

It was Horsted, aside from Montgomery,  who impressed the most despite being the least-heralded of the bunch. Whyte is now a Steeler and Denmark is so raw that he may never make it off of the practice squad. Shelley has a chance to carve out a reserve role in the secondary in 2020, but his inability to see the field more in 2019 does create concern.

Pace's missed evaluation on Mitchell Trubisky is the obvious headline-grabber, but if he continues to struggle in the NFL draft, the Bears will be back to being one of the NFL's cellar-dwellers sooner than later.

David Montgomery, Riley Ridley give Bears glimpse of future in Week 17

David Montgomery, Riley Ridley give Bears glimpse of future in Week 17

The Bears' 2019 NFL Draft class earned high marks despite being without a first or second-round pick largely because of the selections of running back David Montgomery and wide receiver Riley Ridley in the third and fourth rounds. 

Both players were viewed as value picks who could immediately contribute to the Bears' offense this season.

Montgomery, despite going through the expected peaks and valleys of a first-year running back, did just that. Ridley, on the other hand, spent most gamedays inactive and entered Week 17's finale against the Vikings with just three catches for 15 yards.

But when Chicago needed a play to be made on offense in Minneapolis on Sunday, the Bears turned to Montgomery and Ridley.

Montgomery enjoyed his second 100-yard game of the year, finishing with 23 carries for 113 yards and a 14-yard touchdown run. Ridley secured three catches for 54 yards, including a critical late fourth-quarter reception that kept the Bears' game-winning drive alive.

It was a positive development in a season that's been one disappointment after another. Hope for a brighter future is usually found in a team's younger players, and with the offense expected to be the primary rehab project this offseason, building the running game around Montgomery and counting Ridley in the passing game's plans certainly helps expedite that process.

Montgomery's rookie year ends with 242 carries for 889 yards and six touchdowns. He averaged just under 3.7 yards per carry, which isn't great, but remember: Walter Payton averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in his rookie season. Chargers Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson averaged just 3.6 per tote in his first year.

This isn't to say Montgomery will have a Hall of Fame career, but his box score will improve as the offense finds its way. He proved in Week 17 how effective he can be when the offensive line opens holes. 

Ridley didn't have nearly the level of production that Montgomery had, finishing his rookie season with just six catches for 69 yards. But he was clutch on Sunday, and he looked the part too. He ran good routes, showed sure hands and did some damage with the ball in his hands. He just needs more opportunities, which he'll get in 2020.

The book on Chicago's 2019 season closes with a win and an 8-8 record. It wasn't anywhere near as exciting or successful as Bears fans expected. But for all the lows this team has produced over the last four months, two rookies provided a source of hope as the 2020 offseason kicks off.

Will Riley Ridley finally get his shot with the Bears on Thanksgiving?

Will Riley Ridley finally get his shot with the Bears on Thanksgiving?

Inside the Bears’ spacious, brand-new locker room at Halas Hall, who a player's stall is situated next to has a random feel to it. They’re not grouped by positions — Cody Whitehair’s locker, for example, is next to Akiem Hicks’ and is on the opposite end of the long room from Mitch Trubisky’s. 

But there is a set of lockers that feel intentionally placed. Turn to your right after entering the locker room, and you’ll see two names next to each other: Allen Robinson and Riley Ridley. 

“He’s been a big role model for me and other young guys in the room,” Ridley, the Bears’ fourth-round pick this year, said. “Just the way he comes to work and he preps for the games, the way that he attacks the studies for the different plays, it’s just the leader that he is. You can learn a lot from him and being right next to him.” 

The Bears couldn’t ask for Ridley to have better model of professionalism to observe than Robinson, from how he prepares and studies to how he sets up his routes to how he interacts with the media.  

But Ridley’s rookie year has been a humbling experience for the former Georgia standout, who the Bears were elated fell to them with the 126th pick in April’s draft. 

“(He was) truly, by far, the best player on our board,” general manager Ryan Pace said seven months ago. 

But Ridley — whose brother, Calvin, plays for the Atlanta Falcons — has yet to play a single snap for the Bears 11 games into the 2019 season. And it’s not just that he hasn’t been on the field — he’s only been active for one game (Week 4 vs. Minnesota). 

“It’s humbling,” Ridley said. “But you gotta stay ready, you never know when your time is gonna come. It’s just a humbling experience when you’re coming out of college being the man and you expect to come in and do the same.

“… When you’re not playing for a while, you find a way to love the game.”

So Ridley has had to alter his expectations from making a consistent impact on gamedays to trying to do what he can behind the scenes to be prepared if and when that opportunity comes. Wide receivers coach Mike Furrey has been pleased with Ridley’s maturity in handling the difficult position in which he’s been this year. 

“He does it in practice, he does it by the way he runs his routes — if you see him on scout team, what he does in practice and how he runs his routes and sticks to details and catches footballs, he’s preparing himself,” Furrey said. “That day’s going to be fun someday.”

Will that day come on Thanksgiving when the Bears head to Detroit without Taylor Gabriel, who’s unlikely to play with a concussion?

Unfortunately for Ridley, and for the segment of Bears fans hoping to see what No. 88 can do, the answer for this week is probably not. 

The Bears leaned heavily on Javon Wims in Gabriel’s previous concussion-related absence, with the 2018 seventh-round pick playing 118 snaps — about 93 percent — in Weeks 4 and 5 against the Vikings and Raiders. Wims, notably, saw an uptick in usage in Week 12 (before Gabriel’s injury, too), playing 45 percent of the Bears’ snaps against the Giants.

With a short week consisting of two light walkthrough practices to prepare, it seems far more likely the Bears will see Wims as their "next man up" on Thursday than Ridley. 

“He’s been a true pro,” coach Matt Nagy said. “He’s trying to learn every day after practice. He takes advice. Very patient. I know it’s killing him, because he wants to be out there. With Taylor here up in the air, we’ll see what kind of chance this gives Riley.”

While the Bears were excited to draft Ridley, he was always going to face an uphill climb to carving out a role in this offense his rookie year. The Bears like Robinson’s productivity, Gabriel’s speed and Anthony Miller’s talent. They like Cordarrelle Patterson’s impact on special teams and Wims’ size and knowledge of the offense. 

Still, it’s been a little surprising the Bears haven’t been able — or willing — to get Ridley on the field this deep into his rookie year. For a 5-6 team falling well short of expectations, getting no impact from the guy taken with their second-highest draft pick is disappointing, even if the Bears believe Ridley has a bright future. 

So we’ll see what Ridley can do when he finally does get an opportunity — even if it doesn’t come on Thanksgiving. Until he does, though, he’ll plugging away at his craft and trying to pick up as much as he can from Robinson from just one locker stall away. 

“For me,” Ridley said, “it’s just to absorb that, watch him and take a little something and learn it and apply it to my game.”

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