Allen Robinson might be preparing to beast after his first full offseason working in Matt Nagy’s offense as Mitch Trubisky’s top target.
Riley Ridley, based on his strong spring assimilation, could exceed expectations this fall and winter.
Tarik Cohen is already an elite receiving back. Top pick David Montgomery didn’t take long in practice to flash brightly as a pass catcher. And Trey Burton will have unfinished business following sports hernia surgery when he gets back to football work for the first time since December.
Heck, “even [Adam] Shaheen has been making ridiculous catches and dropped some weight in the offseason,” Prince Amukamara told us humorously (without intending to be humorous) of the progress he observed from the passing offense this spring.
No, our intent with these reminders isn’t one more point of emphasis on the table now being fully set for No. 10 for the first time in Year 3 (although here we are).
But if you noticed above a couple omissions in Trubisky’s arsenal, well, know that coach Matt Nagy and his staff paid close attention to Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller this spring.
“I’m going to be absolutely honest with you: I believe he surprised himself,” Bears WR coach Mike Furrey said of Gabriel’s first season in Chicago after signing a four-year, $26 million contract, when he set career highs with 11 starts, 67 catches and 688 receiving yards.
As Furrey explained, Gabriel endured an adjustment period last year, his first in the NFL as a full-time starter and first in a couple seasons out of the shadow of Julio Jones. After averaging 55.25 targets in his first four seasons as an ancillary option, Gabriel commanded easily a career-high 93 last season, also the most consistent for his hands (career-best 72 percent catch rate).
“What I’m proud about him right now at this moment is he’s now come back with a different mentality,” Furrey said. “Now it’s, 'this is my role. This is what I want to do for our football team. Now I want to get better every single day. Now I want to learn the mental part of the game.' Not just understand that he can outrun everybody — which we all know that he can do. Everybody else does, too, so you better have another attribute, another trait to your game that separates you with that ability. And I’m really proud of him right now. How he has come back this year compared to when he showed up last year, it’s very respected.”
Yes, Gabriel paced the Bears — and was among the NFL's leaders — in average separation (3.5 yards) and cushion (7 yards). His 10.3-receiving yard average, however, was relatively disappointing from a former track star with sub 4.4 wheels who produced 16.5- and 17.3-yard clips in his first season with the Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland Browns, respectively. But as Gabriel pointed out on Twitter over the weekend, that was in part a byproduct of the way Nagy used him.
Gabriel’s average air yards per target last season was 11.0, which ranked third on the Bears but trailed Robinson by nearly a full yard and wasn’t in the same stratosphere as some of the game’s premier deep threats (DeSean Jackson, 19.1), Robbie Anderson, 16.5) and (Tyreek Hill, 14.8), to name a few.
Gabriel thinks his time is coming.
“Last year we got a lot of zone and, I mean, that's taking away the deep ball. That's taking away those big shots. That's basically making us kind of drive down the field and put a full drive together. So that's something I was asked to do. I was asked to be consistent. I was asked to make those consistent catches — under 15-yard catches — but now I feel like it's time to go over the top of people, and I think we'll do that this year.”
It’s possible the ascendancy of Miller, whom the Bears traded up in Round 2 to select 51st overall last year, would create more shot-play opportunities for the Bears fastest receiver. But before he can begin building on his team-high seven receiving touchdowns as a second-round rookie, Miller must work his way back in the mix coming off offseason shoulder surgery.
Suffice to say, he’s eager for that time to arrive.
“He's breaking my rule a little bit because I don't like people in between the hashes,” Nagy said last month of Miller, who spent much of the offseason program standing directly in the center of the field behind the quarterbacks during team drills. “That's my world. But I'm OK right now with it. He's champing at the bit right now to get out there. He's just trying to be better.”
It's easy to envision Miller being better in Year 2 after he battled most of his rookie season through a chronic shoulder dislocation and torn labrum requiring surgery in January. But much like Gabriel's already-established speed and separation skills, Miller will start his encore season having already proven that he has all the necessary toughness and confidence to thrive.
That Miller and Gabriel clearly have untapped potential in this offense but also theoretically could be competing for the same snaps equals a good problem that, as Furrey correctly points out, the Bears haven't had in their WR corps in a long, long time.
"When we first got here a couple years ago and sat down and started talking about what we want that room to be like ... there shouldn’t be four guys and then a huge drop-off to the other six," Furrey said. "We’re the Chicago Bears. ... Now you have a lot of talent in that room, where other guys better start upping their game. So I think that’s why it’s healthy. If you look at every single guy in our room right now, every single one of them can have long careers in this league. That’s what you want. And now it makes it hard on us to figure that out. I think [GM] Ryan [Pace] and Matt, obviously within the draft and free agency, have done a phenomenal job to build that depth in our room."
Chicago's depth certainly should be improved with Ridley, Cordarrelle Patterson and the Halls — veteran Marvin and UDFA Emanuel — new to the party. But if Gabriel and Miller reach the heights expected, the Bears offense won't only be deeper, it'll be far more dangerous.