The Chicago Bears receiving core went from a glaring weakness to a major strength in just one calendar year.
Offseason signings Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel will likely be key contributors this season. Rookie Anthony Miller, who GM Ryan Pace moved up to pick in the second round in April’s NFL Draft, is showing signs of being a blue-chip talent in training camp.
New head coach Matt Nagy’s system is going to carry elements from the Kansas City Chiefs offense, meaning other positions will have vital receiving roles. Trey Burton, who spent four seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, is poised to take on the “Travis Kelce role” as the U tight end in the slot.
Second-year tight end Adam Shaheen will likely see the field as a redzone and short-yardage target. Running back Tarik Cohen also offers plenty of versatility. He’s expected to present Tyreek-Hill-style mismatches in Nagy’s offense, albeit with a heavier workload out of the backfield.
On paper, there appears to be plenty of weapons. But what does that mean for Kevin White?
White, who was Pace’s first ever draft choice in 2015, has virtually no resume in the NFL. He’s played only five games in three years due to season-ending injuries each season, which includes a lost rookie campaign to a fractured fibula.
Right now, Robinson is slotted as the X receiver in the offense, meaning he’ll split out wide. Gabriel and Cohen will likely share responsibilities as slot receivers (and Gabriel’s speed will also send him out wide frequently). That leaves the Z role, which flanks out wide opposite Robinson.
White’s size and speed would make him an ideal choice, but the emergence of Miller changes that possibility. Given the draft equity Pace gave up to draft Miller, there is a very good chance he’ll get the nod if he continues to impress in camp and the next few preseason games.
While White is a former first-rounder, his injury history and lack of on-field production are major strikes against him. Nagy also has no ties to him, making it possible he could be a casualty when the Bears begin trimming down their roster following the final two preseason games.
As it stands, White is vying for the No. 4 receiver role. The Bears are most likely going to carry six wideouts this season, and the back half of that unit will need to double as special teams contributors.
That would put him in competition with seventh-round pick Javon Wims; holdovers Josh Bellamy and Tanner Gentry; and supplementary signings like Bennie Fowler III, Marlon Brown and Demarcus Ayers.
While Thursday’s Hall of Fame Game against the Baltimore Ravens won’t have a massive impact on personnel decisions, some things stood out at the receiver spot. Fowler’s history of the drops was on full display. If that continues, he’ll likely be cut or relegated exclusively to a special teams role.
Wims, who’s also been impressive in camp, had a very solid game. He caught 7 passes for 89 yards, including a contested 24-yard reception. Stats aside, Wims also showed strong hands and a nice burst of quickness.
White and Wims both possess thick, 6-foot-3 frames, but White has the edge in terms of measurable speed. His 40-yard dash time and playmaking ability at West Virginia are what made him the seventh overall pick three years ago.
But with limited game tape, we still don’t know if those skills translate against NFL defenses. White was part of a fast-paced air raid offense West Virginia, which is much more conducive to college football. When he has seen an NFL field in either camp or games, he’s appeared apprehensive and indecisive.
White has done well so far in camp under Nagy, and the first-year coach has stated that White can be a weapon in his system. However, White must show signs of being a productive player the rest of preseason to stave off a combination of Wims, Bellamy, Gentry and Fowler.
White is certainly more talented than the latter three, but his lack special teams versatility makes his performance this preseason crucial. No one is saying he must live up to his first-round stock. In fact, it’s highly unlikely he’ll ever achieve that.
However, with Wims possibly pushing White for the No. 4 spot, White has to outplay or stay on par with him.
If he doesn’t, the Bears may simply choose to go with the better option without regard for cost since they’re on the hook for White’s $5.27 million cap hit no matter what.
But if he does show flashes to earn a spot as the fourth receiver, he’ll give the Bears yet another threat in an already stacked group.