Draft analysis: Bears need for help at WR increases after losing Cam Meredith

Part 7 of a 10-part series previewing the NFL Draft and analyzing the Bears’ needs.

The Bears’ signing of free agent wideout Allen Robinson to three-year, $42 million contract almost certainly eliminated wide receiver as a first-round target in this year’s draft if they stay at No. 8. But after losing Cam Meredith in free agency, wide receiver still is likely a priority in the draft, and probably a high one.

The hole created by the loss of Meredith obviously is debatable. The former undrafted free agent from St. Joseph in Westchester and Illinois State was the Bears’ best receiver in 2016 when he had 66 receptions for 888 yards and four touchdowns. But he suffered a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee in the preseason last year and even Meredith couldn’t commit to when he would return to full participation.

If Bears general manager Ryan Pace was convinced that Meredith would immediately be the same receiver he was when he was injured, it’s likely he would have made the simple move to keep him — the second-round free agent tender that would have guaranteed Meredith $2.9 million in 2018. Instead he gave him the same-round tender at $1.9 million — which gave other teams a chance to sign Meredith without giving compensation to the Bears.

Former Bears wide receiver Cam Meredith had 66 receptions for 888 yards and four touchdowns in 2016, but missed the 2017 season after suffering a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee in the preseason. The Saints signed Meredith to a two-year $10 million contract in free agency and the Bears declined to match it. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

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The Saints bit on that, signing Meredith to a two-year, $10 million contract that the Bears did not match. Knowing how easily he could have kept Meredith (the additional $1 million for the second-round tender is less than sixth-tenths of one percent of the salary cap), Pace obviously has concerns about just how productive Meredith can be in Matt Nagy’s offense coming off the injury.

The Bears figure to have other avenues to replace Meredith’s 2016 production in Nagy’s offense. In the Chiefs offense last year, wide receivers accounted for 47.7 percent of the targets, 45.5 percent of the receptions, 52.8 percent of the receiving yards and 46.2 percent of the touchdowns. It’s unlikely Meredith would get the 97 targets he got in 2016 to get those 66 receptions and 888 yards.

The Bears also signed wide receivers Taylor Gabriel and Bennie Fowler in free agency and re-signed Josh Bellamy. Kevin White is a wild-card at this point — found-money if he produces anything after three injury marred seasons. Tanner Gentry was a training camp hit who spent most of the regular season on the practice squad.

The Bears figure to fortify that unit in the draft, perhaps in the second or fourth round rather than with a sixth- or seventh-round long shot. There’s gold to be mined there — the Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster (second round), the Rams’ Cooper Kupp (third round) in 2017; the Giants Sterling Shepard and the Saints Michael Thomas (second round) in 2016; the Seahawks Tyler Lockett (third round) in 2015; the Packers’ Devante Adams (second round) in 2014; the Chargers’ Keenan Allen (third round) in 2014.

It’s worth noting that each one of those receivers had the benefit of a quality quarterback — Ben Roethlisberger, Jared Goff, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers. Everything about the Bears seems to always come back to Mitch Trubisky.

Wide receiver

Grading the Bears’ need:

High. But not as high as it was prior to signing Allen Robinson in free agency. Still, with Robinson coming off a knee injury, the Bears’ wide receiver corps is loaded with question marks and red flags.

On the roster: Allen Robinson ($14 million average annual value), Taylor Gabriel ($6.5 million), Kevin White ($4.1 million), Josh Bellamy ($1.9 million), Bennie Fowler (around $790,000), Tanner Gentry ($555,000), Demarcus Ayers ($555,000), Mekale McKay ($480,000).

Top 5 prospects:

1. Calvin Ridley, Alabama: Once considered a top-10 pick, the 6-0, 189-pound Ridley didn’t have a big season at Alabama with run-oriented Jalen Hurts and was not particularly impressive at the combine. But in the right offense he will be a star in the NFL.

2. Courtland Sutton, SMU: The 6-4, 218-pound Sutton is the kind of big, physical and skilled receivers NFL teams love and could go earlier than projected.

3. Christian Kirk, Texas A&M: Doesn’t have the prototypical size, but the 5-10, 200-pound Kirk has the kind of short-area quickness and run-after-the-catch ability that could make him a huge hit in a Matt Nagy offense.

4. D.J. Moore, Maryland: In the same mold as Kirk, with 4.42 speed to boot, Moore has eclipsed Ridley in some mock drafts as the No. 1 receiver.

5. James Washington, Oklahoma State: The 6-0, 205-pound Biletnikoff Award winner has prolific numbers — he averaged 66 receptions for 1,372 yards and 11 touchdowns in his last three seasons at Oklahoma State. A deep-ball, big-play specialist.

I’m intrigued by …

LSU wide receiver D.J. Chark. The post-season/pre-draft evaluation can fool a lot of people, but the 6-3, 199-pound Chark looks like a classic late-bloomer. He had four 100-plus receiving games in 2017 (after having none in his first two college seasons), starred in the Senior Bowl (5-160, one touchdown) and ran a 4.34 40 with a 40-inch vertical at the combine. But is he still a bargain in the second round?