Regardless of whether the Bears are able to keep Allen Robinson, they will likely be in the market for a wide receiver in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Darnell Mooney looked the part of a full-time starter as a flanker on the outside in his rookie year. As Anthony Miller enters the final year of his rookie contract after a disappointing season, though, the slot receiver position currently appears to be a long-term need for the Bears going forward.
With the current state of their offense, any additional weapons would be a welcomed sight for Chicago. No matter who steps onto the field as their quarterback going forward, surrounding him with some talented wide receivers will help make being the Bears’ starting quarterback a more favorable situation going forward.
The 2021 NFL Draft is stacked to the brim with potential starters out of the slot at the next level. From early-round targets to Day 3 sleepers, the Bears should have several enticing options should they wish to add someone to compete with Miller for reps this coming year.
Here are six slot wide receivers who could be targets for the Bears in this year’s draft.
Kadarius Toney, Florida
An increasingly popular option among mock drafters for the Bears at No. 20, Kadarius Toney was one of the most electrifying receivers in college football in 2020.
Breaking out with 984 yards and 10 touchdowns on 70 receptions, Toney was very clearly a dynamic athlete when watching his tape before this season, but he truly thrived and developed in a bigger role this year. He is one of, if not the most elusive receiver after the catch in the 2021 draft, changing direction with ease and having tremendous lateral agility. He can burn defenders vertically with his blazing, raw speed, and his flexibility in his lower half has allowed for tremendous improvement in the sharpness of his routes. Thickly built with above-average contact balance, Toney is a hassle to try and bring down in space.
Though a dynamic athlete, the Florida standout still has some more polished in his game. He can work on varying his releases and attacking leverage points better in man coverage, and though his drop rates in college weren’t bad at all, he has had issues with ball security in contested situations, and he struggled plenty with drops at the Senior Bowl. For all that, though, Toney possesses a sky-high ceiling, and if the Bears want to draft him, they’ll certainly have to do so in Round 1.
Amari Rodgers, Clemson
With an increased workload this past season, Amari Rodgers was able to break out as the No. 1 receiver for an explosive Clemson offense.
Like Toney, Rodgers was restricted to a complementary role before being given more reps in 2020, and he made the most of it. Topping the 1,000-yard mark and solidifying himself as Trevor Lawrence’s top target, Rodgers brings an element of athleticism out of the slot that makes him tough to stop. He accelerates very well off the snap, and his body control allows him to change direction in space and contort his body to square up to the ball in deep-ball situations. He has sound ball-carrier vision after the catch, and his combination of agility and intelligence has also helped him as a punt returner — he took significant reps there prior to this year and returned a punt for a touchdown in 2019.
As is the case with many slot receivers, Rodgers can struggle in tight windows and doesn’t bring significant physicality through his stems against press coverage. Though having shown promise as a route-runner at the Senior Bowl, his tape did show that he occasionally struggled with varying his releases. He may not become much more than a complementary weapon at the next level, but he brings plenty of value to an offense and should be in consideration for the Bears in Round 3.
Jaelon Darden, North Texas
Very few receivers were able to do more with a limited college football season than Jaelon Darden was this year.
Factoring in bowl games, Darden finished third in the FBS with 1,190 yards, fifth with 74 catches and second with 19 touchdowns. Of the few receivers ahead of him in any of the aforementioned categories, the only player who played in fewer games than Darden’s nine was Elijah Moore — more on him later. The Mean Green standout absolutely torched the opposition on a weekly basis. Darden has tremendous deep speed and accelerates well not only off the snap, but once he gets the ball in his hands in space, too. He has great vision after the catch and the elusiveness to make defenders miss with precise cuts. He’s also a polished and intelligent route runner, showing off the footwork and football IQ needed to adjust his stems, open up a defender’s hips by attacking leverage points, and exploding out of his breaks to create separation.
The big issue with Darden is his frame: not so much with his height, but his weight. Listed at just 174 pounds, he is skinny for the receiver position and could stand to add some more muscle to withstand the physicality of the NFL game. Without much of a catch radius, little physicality off the snap and suspect hands in tight coverage, he likely won’t develop into a high-end possession receiver anytime soon. What he is, though, is a dynamic and crafty receiver, and Chicago could find themselves a steal if they find him on the board any time around Rounds 3 or 4.
Elijah Moore, Ole Miss
2020 served as a major breakout year for Elijah Moore, who proved quickly to be not just one of the best receivers in the SEC, but in all of college football.
With 86 receptions, 1,193 yards and 8 touchdowns in just eight games, Moore was able to place second in the nation in the first two categories in a limited amount of time. His explosiveness is apparent on film, as he fires off the snap with great acceleration and has the breakaway speed needed to generate massive plays after the catch. He has impressive vision with the ball in his hands, and his agility in space allows him to make defenders miss consistently. Moore has a good feel for soft spots in zone coverage, and that instinct, combined with his fluidity and speed, makes him an especially dangerous threat across the middle of the field.
Moore’s physicality and catch radius leave a lot to be desired, and he is still improving in terms of his footwork as a route runner — I would like to see him get a little bit sharper coming out of the top of his route. Though still developing, he has the raw playmaking ability to be a Day 1 complementary weapon who could become a true threat. Chicago could keep tabs on him as a target in the third round this year.
D’Wayne Eskridge, Western Michigan
D’Wayne Eskridge was far and away the most productive receiver in the MAC in 2020.
With 784 yards and 8 touchdowns in just six games, Eskridge led in said major categories among MAC weapons, despite seeing less action than many of the receivers below him on the list. Another major burner coming out of the slot, Eskridge has tremendous burst off the snap and coming out of his breaks. He is insanely shifty after the catch and also uses that agility as a route runner, where he cuts sharply at the top of his route and has a nice varieties of releases off the snap. Western Michigan used him in just about every alignment imaginable for a receiver in 2020, and that versatility could make him an enticing option for NFL offensive coordinators. He also proved to be a dangerous kick returner this year, returning a kick back for a touchdown.
Eskridge has a season-ending broken collarbone four games into the 2019 season, and one would be in his or her right mind to consider durability a long-term concern for him. With a skinny frame and a lack of top-notch physicality in his game, he may need to bulk up a little bit at the next level. Though fairly unproven as a high-volume weapon, Eskridge could be a big-play threat in the NFL, and one the Bears would be wise to target in Rounds 3 or 4, provided they are able to secure a fourth-rounder they currently lack.
Shi Smith, South Carolina
A well-rounded weapon who can separate and burn defenders deep, Shi Smith was a lot of fun to watch in his senior season.
Smith has tremendous ball-tracking skills, and his combination of ball skills and body control allows him to adjust to the deep ball and make difficult grabs look routine. He is a fluid receiver with loose hips who can accelerate well coming out of his breaks and beat cornerbacks deep with speed. He has showcased ideal footwork against press coverage, and he is a natural hands catcher who is able to consistently make the grab away from his frame. Particularly entertaining to watch is his stutter-step release against corners playing closer towards the line of scrimmage, as he has the shiftiness and polished footwork needed to keep his opponent guessing before bursting right by them off the snap.
He may be athletic, but Smith isn’t necessarily as explosive after the catch as some of his other slot-dwellers in the 2021 class. He is plenty fast in a straight line, but his ability to generate spring in his lower body in space is just okay. Smith also has some issues with drops and can stand to be more physical through his stems. He projects best as an option in Rounds 4 or 5, which could make him an intriguing target for the Bears should they use their Day 2 picks at a different position.