In Week 17 of last season, on New Year’s Eve no less: the Bears visited the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. Minnesota, set to polish off a 13-win season and first round bye, contended on the strength of the NFL’s No. 1 defense in yardage and scoring, and was No. 2 in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA. Of particular value was the Vikings’ secondary led by First-Team All-Pros Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes. Chicago, with the league’s worst passing offense, had Mitchell Trubisky flanked by the ever uninspiring Kendall Wright, Dontrelle Inman, and Joshua Bellamy to start the game. The Bears put up a prolific 201 yards of offense and ... you know how this story goes.
Just like any normal person sets a weight loss goal as a New Year’s Resolution, from that point on the Bears knew they couldn’t face any defense - let alone an elite unit -without the proper weapons to attack it. Unlike most resolutions only committing initially to the gym and a better diet, Chicago actually followed through on it’s upgrade mission. No better evidence of that than signing Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel, and drafting Anthony Miller this off-season.
You’re either all in on changing for the better, or you might as well not even try. Yes, we’re still talking about football.
The question is how these new moving skill player parts fit in an offense Matt Nagy is building from a variety of backgrounds. Where Robinson, Gabriel, and Miller eventually slot in defines the ceiling of this offense. More importantly, they’ll set the template for success for Trubisky, and his backfield, as he attempts to become a full-fledged star quarterback.
More than any position group on this Bears’ roster, there’s a lot of projection and high expectations being set for this unproven trio. Each member from Robinson to Miller being clearly more talented than anyone Chicago trotted out in 2017, with a burden of moving past previous doubt and concern.
Let’s focus in on the Bears’ revamped primary receivers, and how they’ll factor in once the Bears strap on full pads roughly over three weeks from now in training camp.
A bonafide playmaker’s return
Former Bears receiver Muhsin Muhammad once said Chicago is “where receivers go to die.” Understandably when you have minimal consistently solid quarterback play like the Bears have had throughout most of their illustrious history, the players most directly affected in receivers are naturally going to suffer. Muhammad, while he was never a “superstar” in the most commonly accepted definition of the word, was entirely correct in his assessment. The standard for receiver play with the Bears was always lower than say, somewhere like Green Bay or Indianapolis.
This mantra changed when the Bears acquired legitimate stars Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in 2012: by far the most individually talented receivers the Bears have ever had put on their uniform. For a brief spell, Chicago was not a place where receivers go to die, but somewhere they postponed the grim reaper’s arrival with physicality, acrobatic catches, and an attitude based on punishing defensive backs.
Unfortunately the Bears couldn’t extend this period to the initial stages of the Trubisky era, as the rookie quarterback was necessitated to learn on the fly with an objectively poor supporting cast. For one year, meaning the 2017 season, the trend of Bears’ receivers losing hope had made it’s comeback and combined with a quarterback attempting to make the best of an awful situation.
Enter Robinson as the course correction the Bears needed at receiver. A 24-year-old injection of energy, fearlessness, and ability that more closely matches Marshall and Jeffery than say, Muhammad. He’s the vocal man who can once again spit in the face of any opinion saying receivers can’t enjoy successful careers with the Bears. A 2015 season with the Jaguars where Robinson caught 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns is a testament to his proficiency when a passing offense is fueled by him.
Robinson should undoubtedly be prepared to have the Bears rely on him in the same way in his new home. However, the teensy-tiny problem for him is that 2015 was the only time he’s demonstrated he’s a No. 1 receiver production-wise. To get back to that level of dominance, he also has to be 100 percent healthy and recovered from an ACL injury suffered last year An injury that kept him from going full-go through the Bears’ off-season activities. Factor in him being paid $14 million per season as the 10th highest paid receiver in the NFL, and that magnifies an intense pressure to excel. Rest assured that a slow start won’t be tolerated. Reasonably, anyway.
To his credit, Robinson has frequently insinuated he isn’t worried about these obstacles with the Bears. He signed with the organization because he believed in the vision and direction the franchise had set upon itself. Not to mention their patience and belief in his return to elite status.
“I know how I’m going to go about this thing: I know the type of player I’m going to be,” said Robinson of his injury and production concerns at an introductory Bears’ press conference back in March. “So, for me, there’s no questions. I know myself.”
Belief and confidence in yourself is one of the first steps on the road back to prominence. How Robinson backs up his strong words partly sets the height for the hurdles the Bears’ offense ends up clearing in 2018.
Set aside his prowess in a hypothetical powerful rebound season for a minute. The support Robinson receives and the space he’ll create for his teammates is the underrated greatest effect of his presence. His receiver teammates primarily most often being Gabriel and Miller: two fiery, competitive grinders in the open field out. Both with a chip on their shoulder from outside doubt, much like Robinson in nursing his injury.
Despite regularly humiliating defenders throughout his career, Gabriel has always been overlooked due to his size at 5-foot-8, 165 pounds. He’s been called “too small” and incapable of being a “full-time” player. Somehow in the face of this rampant doubt, he’s persevered as a vaunted, terrifying weapon. When in form, he’s averaged 16.9 yards per catch while meshing in his two top professional NFL seasons with the Browns (2014) and Falcons (2016), respectively. That number would’ve tied for 4th in the NFL in 2017: painting the picture of one of the elite big play studs in football. Watch Gabriel take any short screen to the house through the tiniest slivers of space and you’ll understand this sentiment.
Not by coincidence, both of Gabriel’s stellar seasons came under the guidance of 49ers’ coach Kyle Shanahan: who coordinated those offenses to maximize Gabriel. In the other two years (2015 and 2017) Gabriel’s been away from Shanahan, his offensive coordinators have failed at efficiently feeding him the ball in areas where he can stretch defenses past their limits. His production dropping summarily on each occasion. The definition of boom or bust from one able creative coach, to the inexperienced confusion of others.
The hunch is that Matt Nagy is closer to Shanahan in competence of offensive play design, but you never know without a needed sample size. The Bears’ coaching staff is already tasked with designing an offense that keeps a lot of players involved. There’s always the possibility the diminutive Gabriel is lost in the shuffle. Make no mistake: an egregious potential oversight on the part of Nagy and company.
Meanwhile, the Bears trading up to draft Miller in the second round of this year’s draft speaks volumes as to what they envision from him in their offense. The 2017 All-American doesn’t have any margin for error. If anything, Chicago’s leadership might have higher expectations for him (down the line) than his inherently more proven teammates in Robinson and Gabriel.
With the departure of Cameron Meredith to the Saints in the spring, the Bears need Miller to step in to that No. 2 role opposite Robinson without a hitch. A lot to ask for a man that will face off against the cream of the crop athletes in the sport.
At least the self-proclaimed “best receiver in the draft” in Miller hasn’t shied away from the spotlight. Nor has he uttered an ounce of fear in building his own legacy brick by agonizing brick. In the face of a daunting challenge and history, relentless confidence and a positive mindset is the route to take.
And what trend of history does Miller have to overcome as a rookie receiver exactly?
For one, understanding route trees and how to diagnose coverages defenses use to slow him down on split second decisions. Refining his technique against all manners of polished defensive backs that understand he won’t immediately know how to counter. This in the midst of trying to avoid becoming the firsthand disappointments of 2017 second rounders in the Panthers’ Curtis Samuel and Bills’ Zay Jones from the 2017 NFL Draft. Instead, emulating the Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster as an explosive focal point through most of his rookie year.
Like with Robinson, confidence and belief go a long way. But they’re not the same as tangible experience for Miller in overcoming obstacles.
In a nutshell, if everything goes according to plan (it so often goes haywire, especially for the Bears), this triumvirate fits together almost flawlessly.
If Robinson shakes out as the prescribed No. 1, he’s making life easy not only for Trubisky, but Gabriel, Miller, and anyone else on the field with the attention he receives. Imagine the dangers of a safety veering over to help a cornerback cover Robinson, and Gabriel striking on a deep bomb in the vacated area. That’s what stars do: make plays and their teammates better.
Once Nagy pieces together a game plan that fits Gabriel suitably, he’s how the offense flips over a defense’s game plan. You can’t scheme for players that break the positioning of defenders with agility and speed in one touch. You can only hope they don’t demoralize your players and that they don’t find the holes in your defense before it’s too late. Gabriel, like Tarik Cohen, gives the Bears that dimension.
As for Miller, his rookie season can’t be a year where he soaks in information as a mostly harmless spectator. The Bears’ have too little receiving depth outside of this receiving trio to see anything less than a solid wholesale performance from Miller. He’s getting a baptism by fire, and he better come out unscathed. See him as a player the Bears can also comfortably run their passing offense through in ideal scenarios.
Robinson, Gabriel, and Miller have something to teach one another. Each has a different skill set that mesh well for a volatile Bears’ mix. And crucially, they share a background in proving their critics wrong.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.