Bears poised for breakout seasons in 2020: Anthony Miller, two defenders primed to make the leap

The Chicago Bears were never going to dominate free agency or the upcoming draft. Working with limited funds and picks, but needing to fill a few sizable holes, including at quarterback, the Bears went to work filling the gaps by trading for Nick Foles at quarterback, signing Robert Quinn to bolster the pass rush, and adding Jimmy Graham to address a tight end group that has failed to produce over the past few seasons. Whether or not the Bears adequately addressed those three areas is subject to interpretation, but what’s undeniable is that the Bears still have a few pressing holes that they’ll be forced to fill internally.

With a couple of weeks remaining until the draft, the Bears still have holes at cornerback after they cut Prince Amukamara, safety after they didn’t re-sign Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and wide receiver after releasing Taylor Gabriel. So, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to learn that two of the three players projected to break out for the Bears in 2020 play positions in need of bolstering, cornerback and wide receiver. The third player selected for this story occupies a spot on the Bears’ stacked defensive front. That leaves safety as an urgent area of need for the Bears entering the draft. But without a first-round pick, they’ll have to wait until the second and third day to find a new partner for Eddie Jackson — ideally one who can stick around for the long haul.

But that’s a story for another day. In the meantime, let’s take a look at the three Bears who are poised to turn the corner in 2020.

3. CB Kevin Toliver 

Losing Amukamara was a brutal blow for the Bears, but one that was necessary given their dire cap situation. By cutting Amukamara, the Bears created cap space, but they also parted ways with a corner who appeared in 44 and started 42 of 48 possible games since joining the Bears in 2017. Together, he and Kyle Fuller formed one of the better cornerback duos in football. Amukamara wasn’t the star — that was Fuller — but he did pick off three passes, rack up 29 pass breakups, and generate a Pro-Football-Reference approximate value of 17, which ranked 21st among all corners in that span.

He’ll be tough to replace. So far, the Bears have tried to do so by signing Artie Burns, a 24-year-old former first-round pick who burned out with the Steelers. The only problem? Burns isn’t very good. He’s fine as a cheap signing with upside given his first-round pedigree and youth, but he shouldn’t be expected to adequately replace Amukamara.

Kevin Toliver, on the other hand, has a real chance to be Amukamara’s successor. The Bears might still add a cornerback or two in the draft. They’d be wise to do so. But the current construction of their roster indicates that Toliver, also 24, should be competing for the void vacated by Amukamara. At this point, he should be considered the favorite.

The former LSU cornerback joined the Bears in 2018 as an undrafted free agent. Across two seasons, he’s appeared in 27 games and made two starts. He’s yet to record an interception and has accumulated four pass breakups and 29 combined tackles. According to Pro-Football-Reference, Toliver has allowed 23 completions on 34 targets (67.6%) for 290 yards (8.5 yards per target and 12.6 yards per catch) in his two-year career. In other words, he’s unproven. For the sake of comparison, also via PFR, Burns has allowed 20 completions on 29 targets (69%) for 341 yards (11.8 yards per target and 17.1 yards per catch) in the past two seasons. It’s obvious, but it needs to be said: Those are small sample sizes.

But Toliver has impressed in splashes. Here he is successfully breaking up a pass against Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams with perfect technique. 

Some might see the Bears’ inaction at cornerback this offseason as incompetence. That might be true. But it also might be that they’re confident in their internal options at corner. If they are, Toliver is probably who they have in mind to replace Amukamara.

He’s still an unknown, but he’s flashed potential in small doses. On a great Bears defense, he’ll have a tremendous opportunity to earn a starting job.

2. DL Bilal Nichols

It was thought the 2019 season would be Nichols’ breakout after he proved to be a pleasant surprise during his rookie year with three sacks and seven quarterback hits in a limited role. But along with the rest of the Bears’ pass rush, Nichols struggled to bring down quarterbacks this past season, failing to tally a single sack with only two quarterback hits. 

Nichols, a former fifth-round pick, could break out in 2020, though. For one, the Bears’ pass rush suffered a year ago because star defensive lineman Akiem Hicks missed 11 games. Assuming Hicks has better injury luck in 2020, he’ll draw the attention of opposing offenses. So will Khalil Mack, obviously. The difference is that the Bears added Robert Quinn in free agency. Perhaps they committed too many years and too much money to a soon-to-be 30-year-old pass rusher, but in the short term, the Bears just added an edge rusher who exploded for 11.5 sacks last year and has averaged nearly nine sacks per season since 2011. 

With offenses keyed in on stopping Mack and Quinn around the edges, and Hicks on the inside — not to mention, Roquan Smith blitzing from his inside linebacker position, something he excels at — Nichols should benefit and clean up a lot of the pressure that those aforementioned rushers generate. If he can stay healthy, Nichols could be in for a career year.

One quick note: If it’s not Nichols who breaks out, it’ll probably be Roy Robertson-Harris instead.

1. WR Anthony Miller

Allen Robinson is locked in as the Bears’ top receiver. But there’s a void behind him. Taylor Gabriel was a salary cap casualty before free agency, which opened up a spot at WR2. 

The solution is Miller, a 2018 second-round pick who, like Nichols, was supposed to breakout in 2019. After a slow start last season, Miller caught on down the stretch. He finished with 52 catches, 656 yards, and two touchdowns with 438 of his 656 yards coming after Week 9. Not to mention, in his rookie season, he caught 33 passes for 423 yards and seven touchdowns. With Gabriel gone, more reps should be in store for Miller. He’s already flashed in a limited role during his first two seasons. In a starting role, he could blossom.

The key is, will he get better quarterback play? If Foles is an upgrade over Mitchell Trubisky, Miller could explode. If Foles fails to be an improvement or if Trubisky remains the starter and plays as he has over the past few seasons (not well) then Miller will be hard-pressed to make a huge improvement.

But with an increase in snaps and targets, Miller’s production should spike. He just needs a little help to breakout in a major way.

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