BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – At no point in the previous 17 summers the Bears spent at Olivet Nazarene University preparing for the season was wide receiver depth considered a team strength.
Not even the most optimistic member of the personnel department could proclaim it a position of exceptional depth.
Sure, the Bears have had some good starting pairs – the combination of Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall was as good as any in franchise history and one of the best in the league. Behind that duo, though, the Bears didn’t have playmakers.
At other times, the Bears sorely lacked front-line talent and depth. Just two years ago, Cameron Meredith was the projected No. 1 receiver before suffering a preseason knee injury that sidelined him for all of 2017.
General manager Ryan Pace completely overhauled the position last year, adding Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel in free agency and trading back into Round 2 to draft Anthony Miller. Pace added to it again this year, drafting pro-ready Riley Ridley from Georgia in the fourth round after signing offensive gadget and kickoff returner Cordarrelle Patterson in free agency.
For once, the Bears have unusual depth at the position, even though hamstring injuries have sidelined Ridley and Jordan Williams-Lambert early in training camp. The Bears are expected to keep six receivers on the 53-man roster, and it’s not out of question they will carry seven, at least to start the season.
Five players appear to be locks: Robinson, Gabriel, Miller, Patterson and Ridley. Javon Wims, a seventh-round pick in 2018; Emanuel Hall, an undrafted rookie from Missouri; speedy veteran Marvin Hall; and Williams-Lambert are squarely in the mix along with Tanner Gentry, who spent most of the last two years on the practice squad.
Pace isn’t going to keep a seventh receiver without a compelling reason, but he can find a spot if he’s looking. The Bears are unlikely to retain five tight ends as they did last year, and barring a complete change of plans, they won’t carry a fullback as they did in 2018. Pace could go one short at almost any other position as well. Several factors will shape the final decisions, but one is always: “Who is the best player?”
“We have a lot of depth at wide receiver,” coach Matt Nagy said. “Playing those guys and seeing what they can do is key because it’s a valuable position for us, and we feel really good at that spot.”
Wims stood out last summer when he led the NFL with 227 preseason receiving yards despite not playing in the fourth game. Unfamiliar names should get ample opportunities, with Nagy almost certain to repeat last year’s plan to use his starters only sparingly in exhibitions. The players who capitalize will be discussed prominently when it comes time to trim from 90 to 53.
“I have always emphasized just having a lot of weapons,” Gabriel said. “When I was in Atlanta, we had a load of weapons, and that is how we got to the Super Bowl. You never have a lag if there are some injuries or guys get tired. It’s a lot of young guys with a lot of potential. I think we will be OK.”
As an undrafted rookie with the Browns in 2014, Gabriel played the numbers game when he got to camp, counting the bodies in the meeting room. He credits teammate Andrew Hawkins with helping to clear his mind, which allowed him to perform – and make the team.
“You don’t want that to be a burden or something that is hanging over your head when you are on the field,” Gabriel said. “I give the younger guys that advice. They’re out here having fun.
“Don’t look at things, play the number game and say, ‘Oh, he’s locked in and this is that and this is there.’ You never know, and we’ve got a lot of different flavors.”
The other thing is not to worry about what the other receivers are doing.
“We’re a big family, first of all,” Miller said. “We don’t come in between each other with that kind of vibe. We all work together and toward one goal – just becoming better players. Whatever decisions the top office makes, that’s what they do. Each of us knows those decisions are coming.
“You can’t come into practice worrying, ‘What’s my position?’ You’ve got to think about, ‘What do I need to do on this play?’ If you are thinking about other things, you’re not going to perform well.”
Based on Wims’ performance last year – he played well in the finale against the Vikings – he has a little advantage in the battle for the sixth receiver spot. If he can prove worthy of helping on special teams, that would enhance his value.
Emanuel Hall is a speed merchant, and the Bears always want players who can create mismatches by running past defenders. He underwent offseason surgery to repair a nagging groin injury and will be brought along slowly – he practiced Friday and took Saturday off.
Williams-Lambert, who starred for Saskatchewan in the CFL last season and is a bigger target at 6-foot-3, 228 pounds, made plays in the spring to open eyes.
Add it all up and position coach Mike Furrey has a talented group. Eventually, it will become a numbers game, but however many the Bears keep, it will be their deepest group of receivers in a long time.
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