By Robert Zeglinski
There are a lot of spots seen as strengths for the 2017 Bears. From the talented defensive front seven to the stable of playmaking tight ends, Chicago is built for the long haul in the trenches.
Already a bit limited at receiver going into Sunday’s penultimate preseason contest against the Tennessee Titans, the loss of No. 1 wideout Cameron Meredith to a torn ACL – ending his season before it even started – clearly signifies receiver as the tip of the iceberg on this Bears roster. This was already a receiving group filled with question marks (former first-round pick, Kevin White), potential (undrafted free agent rookie, Tanner Gentry) and players on prove-it deals (Kendall Wright). All code for no true game-breaker.
Make no mistake: A grinding Bears team built down the middle with a lack of dynamic talent on the outside has now become that much more of a three-yards and a cloud of dust offense.
More than any total team impact, what the biggest shame concerning Meredith’s loss is how poised he was to break out. The third-year wideout led the Bears in most every relevant receiving statistic in 2016. After an off-season of polishing up and one of the team’s most productive individual training camps, the 24-year-old was poised to make a leap into the stratosphere – especially with an increased workload as the No. 1 option.
That’s all out the window for Meredith now. It’s about rehabilitating well to recover for the 2018 season. A bright future all thrown down the scrap heap.
And the Bears? Well, the Bears have a big hole to plug in their still-floating ship while dealing with the disappointment of the loss of one of their top young players. Just ask head coach John Fox.
“It’s a disadvantage. These guys work hard and spend a lot of time at their craft. Not particularly an easy craft. You feel bad. Obviously, he’s disappointed. He’ll bounce back,” said Fox of Meredith’s loss.
Fox isn’t known to be the most boisterous type. He, however, has been around the league enough to understand when a player is poised for special performances. When they’ve put the work in and have the talent to coincide. Meredith was one of those guys for the veteran coach in perhaps his last coaching stop.
The plan shifts to a moderate all-hands on deck. No, losing a receiver isn’t a disaster situation for a football team. In fact, you can qualify the position as more window dressing: an excellent luxury to possess but not a backbreaker if you don’t.
In the grand scheme of things, these Bears aren’t ready to contend anyway. Meredith’s injury would’ve hurt more if Mitchell Trubisky was already an established superstar because then your franchise quarterback lost his top target. A good quarterback turns his receivers into viable options but the relationship is inherently give-and-take: someone still has to make the plays. Trubisky isn’t that star yet and that’s important to understand.
But the loss of Meredith puts two aspects primarily in perspective. Two questions that will be asked in both the short and long-term of the 2017 season: Who steps up in the wake of his absence? And how will the Bears plan to replace him?
The most obvious answer to a player stepping up is White.
White’s situation is now even more of a case study. After missing 28 of his first 32 professional games due to two separate leg injuries, the Bears have yet to see the talent that made him a former No. 7 overall pick. He was set for a No. 2 role next to the more established Meredith and could have that plan scrapped completely.
Perhaps, with comfort, the Bears look to feature White more and see how he responds to the increased workload. Yes, with an offense built around heavy personnel, you can still expect to see plenty of the tight ends in Dion Sims, Zach Miller, and Adam Shaheen in tandem with a dominant running game led by Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. Someone has to pick up Meredith’s targets though. Someone has to fill in that gap and the most logical conclusion is White.
Two events can happen in this scenario.
From the positive perspective, the Bears receive a blessing-in-disguise and White relatively thrives as the No. 1, showing confidence. From the other side, he crumbles under the pressure, gets injured again, or is still ineffective. A Bears’ experiment for White is underway and will have to be monitored over the next four months.
Ever the noble and optimistic teammate, White understands what the loss of Meredith will do to the Bears, even if he can’t admit that it potentially dramatically changes his role.
“We are pretty close since we came in together. It sucks to see one of your guys go down. He (Meredith) was going to have a big year this year. It’s always bad when you see one of your guys go down, but he will bounce back,” said White.
Indeed, in the wake of losing one of your top performers, positivity for White and Fox is the name of the game. The Bears have to operate almost as if Meredith doesn’t exist, at least until early January because he can’t help this current team succeed. A cold-hearted reality.
As far as replacing Meredith, don’t expect a big trade.
Aspects such as roster construction and system flexibility make it very difficult for any transactions of consequences to happen between teams in the NFL. Deals for names such as Miami’s Jarvis Landry or Jacksonville’s Allen Hurns simply aren’t realistic. Not to mention that the Bears are a rebuilding team. Do they want to give up a top draft asset for one of football’s most non-essential positions with an eye on this year’s results? Not a great idea.
Expect Chicago to heavily play the waiver wire, especially as the league’s big new roster cut of 37 players leaving every team by the end of the preseason comes into fruition. It’s first-come first-serve and the Bears are best served to have done their homework in preparation for youthful receiving upside.
Until then, as cliche as it sounds, it’s a next-man-up mentality in Chicago. There are no other options for Fox and company.
“We’ve got other guys. They’re not of his (Meredith’s) caliber but someone else will step up and we have got a good bunch to do that.” R.
Robert is your guy for all things Bears. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.