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Saturday Spotlight: Anthony Miller

Throughout the 2020 NFL season, we’ll spotlight a Bears player in a weekly column. This week, we’ll take an in-depth look at Receiver Anthony Miller.

NFL: NOV 24 Giants at Bears Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Name: Anthony Miller

Position: Receiver

Nickname: Ant

Number: 17

Age: 25

Time with Bears: 2 seasons

The Past:

“Three seconds to go. Here’s Cohen. Burton, to Cohen, looking to throw it...and he’s got the touchdown! Anthony Miller!”

One of the most exciting moments under this current Bears regime came during the 2018 matchup between the Bears and the New York Giants. Down 7 points at the Giants’ 1-yard line, and with the clock certain to expire on the ensuing play, coach Matt Nagy reached into his hat and pulled out a trick. Reverse option, WR shallow cross. Miller sold it well, blocking to start the play to sell the Trey Burton run, then cutting once his defender looked up. Tarik Cohen, the second ball-carrier, under-threw the pass and Miller adjusted well to the catch. That play forced overtime, and although the Bears lost in the extra period, it was clutch execution in a do-or-die circumstance. If Miller doesn’t sell that run, then he’s not open. If he’s not open, then Cohen has nowhere to throw it, and probably takes a two yard loss as time expires.

Miller has become known for these clutch moments in his career. In a 2019 matchup against the Detroit Lions, the Bears were down by three points with five minutes to go, and their offense had stalled. On a 3rd and 5, Miller ran a perfect hesitation fade route from the inside position of a bunch formation, securing a 35-yard reception for a 1st down. A few plays later, again on 3rd down, he burned his man on a deep route and secured a 31 yard catch. David Montgomery caught the game-winning touchdown pass two plays later, but without Miller’s 66 yards on that drive, the Bears probably would have lost that game.

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

The 2018 NFL draft had a deep group of play-making receivers, but lacked top-end talent to take in the 1st round without hesitation. According to Walter Football, Calvin Ridley was the only receiver who fit that mold. One player in large group of receivers projected for the second round was Miller, who had set records at the University of Memphis. In consecutive seasons he caught over 1400 yards, and he finished his NCAA career with 37 total touchdowns. He was still seen as undersized and had missed an entire season of college football due to a shoulder injury. He was a high-risk, high-reward prospect drawing comparisons to Antonio Brown.

The Bears traded up with the Patriots to select Miller in the 2nd round, packaging a 3rd round pick and a 2019 2nd rounder in a trade that worked well for both sides. In his rookie season, he led the Bears in touchdowns with 7, although his presence was felt in more ways than just scoring. Where Allen Robinson dominated the short passing attack, Miller was a constant threat to take the top off the defense with deep routes, often drawing enough attention that quarterback Mitchell Trubisky could scramble to green grass. However, therein lied the struggle; when Trubisky lost his footwork on deep throws, Miller’s production ground to a halt.

Take, for instance, the 2018 Bears-Bills game. The Bills pass rush failed to rattle Trubisky that entire game, and although it was dominated by the Bears defense forcing turnovers, Miller still put together a productive stat line: 5 receptions for 49 yards. He also drew a pass interference penalty which netted over 40 yards and set the Bears up on the Bill goal line. Trubisky’s passes were crisp and accurate that game, because the Bills pass rush never scared him into happy feet.

Compare that to the 2018 Bears-Rams game, where Aaron Donald and company harassed Trubisky into 3 interceptions against just 110 yards passing. Miller doesn’t even show up on that stat line unless you expand it to include targets: 1. Time has showed that when Trubisky struggles, so does Miller.

Chicago Bears v Washington Redskins Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

In the offseason before the 2019 season, Miller had shoulder surgery to repair a nagging cartilage ailment. He reportedly dislocated it several times in his rookie year, and would have to painfully pop it back into place every time. He started 2019 slow. Through 5 games, he had just 8 receptions for 80 yards, according to ESPN. Bears wide receivers coach Mike Furrey had tough love for Miller during this time, saying that he still had that “college mentality” and insinuating that Trubisky didn’t completely trust Miller to be in the right spot on plays.

A common story-line of the 2019 season was Trubisky’s harness that he wore after he missed a few games due to an injured shoulder. Oft-forgotten is the harness Miller wore in 2019 after surgery, which appeared to severely limit his arm extension. Considering Miller runs deep routes for a quarterback prone to overthrows, arm extension can be the difference between a 40 yard reception and an incomplete pass. Perhaps sensing that difficulty making plays with the harness, Miller cut the harness off last year after a trip to London ended with a tough loss to a suspect Raiders defense.

Miller had a three game stretch between weeks 5-7 where he averaged 4 receptions for 61 yards per game. These performances were serviceable, and stretched out they can be respectable as a floor for a starting receiver with his talent. However, he didn’t break 100 yards receiving in a game until week 13, and didn’t score a touchdown until week 14. By then, the Bears were a long-shot to make the playoffs and teams were beginning to double-team Allen Robinson in order to force Trubisky to throw elsewhere. With Taylor Gabriel off the field in concussion protocol since mid-November and tight end Trey Burton out with injuries as well, Miller’s stats were bound to improve.

NFL: MAY 11 Bears Rookie Minicamp Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Present:

Miller enters 2019 securely in a starting role for this offense. On the Bears official depth chart, they list Robinson, Miller, and free agent signee Ted Ginn Jr as starting receivers. However, in two-receiver sets Miller should stay on the field instead of the 35-year old Ginn. He’s in year three of a four year rookie contract, and after this year the Bears will have to make a decision on whether to sign him long-term. This makes 2020 a different form of a contract year for Miller. If he plays well this year, he will be forcing the Bears to sign him to a high-dollar contract. If he has another dud season, expect his relationship with the Bears to have an expiration date.

The future:

Like most Bears players on the current roster, Miller has enjoyed moderate success against a Lions team which has finished below .500 for two years in a row. In his career, Miller has averaged 4.5 catches for 77.5 yards against the Lions. Expect this trend to continue, as the Darius Slay-less Lions will put all their attention (and their prized rookie cornerback) against Allen Robinson. Anthony Miller will feast in this game, and 2020 will be his best year as a pro.

Jack’s Week 1 prediction:

5 catches, 7 targets, 103 receiving yards, 1 receiving TD, 1 rushing attempt, 5 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD (on a trick play)