How Did the Bears Use Their Receivers & Tight Ends in 2018?

| May 28th, 2019

The offseason is the perfect time to do a deep dive into what exactly we saw on the field last year, so today I want to look more closely at how Chicago used their WRs and TEs in 2018.

Where They Lined Up

Let’s start by looking at where these players lined up, which can illustrate just how versatile they were (or were not). All data comes from The Quant Edge except for Tarik Cohen’s, which is from Pro Football Focus.

A few thoughts:

  • The Bears generally moved their main weapons all over the place. Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton and Tarik Cohen – who spent about 1/3 of his snaps out of the backfield – were all extremely versatile.
  • We also see that versatility in some of the depth pieces, most notably TEs Adam Shaheen and Ben Brauneker and WR Josh Bellamy. Dion Sims, on the other hand, was pretty much always an in-line TE.
  • The other piece who didn’t move much was Anthony Miller, spending the vast majority of his time in the slot. This is because he played almost exclusively at 3rd WR alongside Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel. His versatility was demonstrated in different ways, as we’ll see below, and I think he’ll get moved around a lot more next year after usurping Gabriel as the WR2.

How They Were Used

Now I want to look at what routes the main options – Robinson, Gabriel, Burton, and Miller – got their targets on. The table below has the percentage of targets each player received on various routes, with the routes arranged by descending order of total targets. Numbers that are low compared to peers are highlighted in red, while numbers that are high are highlighted in green. All data from The Quant Edge.

A few thoughts:

  • The first thing that jumps out to me is that Taylor Gabriel got way too many screen passes last year. That’s nearly 1 in 5 targets! And he was highly inefficient on those routes, averaging only 2.9 yards/target. I know they’re hoping to use his speed to spring a few big plays, but the evidence suggests that didn’t really work, and he should see fewer screens in 2019. The addition of other speed targets – notably Cordarrelle Patterson and Emanuel Hall – might impact this too, as the Bears hopefully spread out screen options among more targets. Patterson, for instance, saw 15 of his 29 targets as either screens or swing passes to the flat in 2018.
  • Allen Robinson was the king of the slant route, which accounted for 11% of his targets compared to only 5% for all WRs and TEs as a whole. And he was highly effective on these routes, catching 83% of them and averaging over 12 yards/target.
  • Anthony Miller did good work with crossing routes, where he caught 6 of 9 targets and averaged over 16 yards/target. This is a good time for the obligatory reminder that these can be small sample sizes. Miller had only 54 targets on the year, Burton had 76, and Robinson and Gabriel were both in the 90s. Thus specific route information will be a subset of that, and not terribly large.
  • Gabriel and Burton were both heavily utilized on out routes, though their efficiency was drastically different. Burton wasn’t very effective with them (11 targets, 6 catches, 4.6 yards/target), while Gabriel was (15 targets, 11 catches, 9.5 yards/target).
  • The Bears sure liked throwing go routes to their wide receivers, though not as much to Trey Burton. This was a highly ineffective route for the Bears, which isn’t surprising given Trubisky’s deep ball struggles in 2018. The WR trio combined for 40 targets and caught only 12 of them, and 4 of those passes were intercepted. The Bears might want to lay off the go route in 2019.
  • If you want to pick one player to target on the go route, it would probably be Allen Robinson, who has a large catch radius and is capable of going up and winning a jump ball. He caught 40% of those targets, which still isn’t great but is much better than the 21% catch rate everybody else posted, and averaged more than 16 yards/target.
  • The Bears’ most popular route to target was a curl (21% of total targets), though for some reason they didn’t use Anthony Miller much here. Trey Burton was particularly effective at curls, catching 19 of 20 balls thrown his way and averaging over 8 yards/target.
  • I’ll have more in a follow-up article looking at routes targeted in terms of overall efficiency and WR/TE splits.
  • Miller and Robinson are the only players to receive a target on every single route, illustrating their versatility in terms of the route tree. Even though Miller didn’t move out of the slot much, his ability to run every route effectively still makes him valuable.

Advanced Stats

Finally I want to take a look at how defenses are covering the main pass targets, using data from Next Gen Stats. These are not necessarily metrics that show how good a WR or TE has been, but instead highlight how players are being used and what their skill set might be. Numbers in parentheses indicate where that player ranks out of 125 WRs and TEs. All numbers are measured in yards.

A few thoughts:

  • You can tell how much defenses respect Taylor Gabriel’s speed, because he is among the league leaders in how much cushion they give him. Yet he’s still able to be very open when targeted.
  • Allen Robinson is still pretty covered for many of his targets, because he doesn’t need separation to make the catch. This is further supported by Pro Football Focus data which gives Robinson the 4th highest catch rate on contested targets of any NFL WR in 2018. The cushion and separation difference between him and Gabriel highlight their different styles.
  • All three wide receivers are pretty middle of the pack in terms of target depth, indicating that none of them were pigeonholed into being solely deep threats (high target depth) or possession receivers (low target depth).
  • The Bears generally weren’t great at picking up yards after the catch (YAC). I wonder how much of that has to do with over 1/5 of their targets being on curls, which you catch facing back at the QB and thus not well set up to pick up more yards by running.
  • I’d love to throw Cordarrelle Patterson in here, but he didn’t see enough snaps/targets to qualify, so I don’t have any data.

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