When the Bears released wide receiver Taylor Gabriel on February 21, a vacant spot appeared at the “Z” receiver position in head coach Matt Nagy’s offense.
The “Z” receiver, also known as the flanker, is typically on the same side of the formation as the tight end and on the opposite end of the “X” receiver. The “Z” also frequently lines up off the line of scrimmage, which allows him to be sent in motion depending on the play.
The first two likely candidates to replace Gabriel as the “Z” receiver were 2019 fourth-round draft pick Riley Ridley and the do-it-all Cordarrelle Patterson.
However, even though Gabriel’s last game in 2019 came against the Giants in Week 12, Ridley and Patterson weren’t featured much in the offense in the final five weeks. Ridley was implemented for the first time on offense in Week 13 and had 108 total offensive snaps and caught six passes for 69 yards for the season. Patterson only appeared 83 times on offense and had three receptions for 44 yards after Gabriel went down.
Chicago then added another receiver in the 2020 NFL Draft when the Bears selected Darnell Mooney in the fifth-round. And just 10 days later the team signed veteran receiver Ted Ginn Jr. to a one-year contract.
The Bears have several options, but the question still remains, who will be the “Z” receiver in 2020?
The answer is simple: all of them.
Let’s take a look at each of the four receivers and see what they can add to the position.
Ted Ginn Jr.
The newest Bears’ receiver should get the first opportunity to start, especially since Ginn has the most experience at the position with this being his 14th season in the league.
He understands the nuances of running routes and how to fluctuate his speed in correlation with his placement in the progression in a specific play. With COVID-19 most likely impacting the practice reps leading up to the first game of the season, Nagy needs a receiver he can trust.
Ginn also adds the attribute the Bears need most from the “Z” position, which is speed.
“I can still run,” Ginn said during his introductory video teleconference last week. “That’s my attribute. I can run. I can catch. I can jump. Don’t let the age and the years fool you.”’
Despite being 35 years old, defenses still feared Ginn’s speed last season. According to Next Gen Stats, in 2019, cornerbacks gave Ginn seven yards of cushion, which was the fourth-most in the league. That was the same amount of cushion corners gave Gabriel in 2018.
The one thing Ginn doesn’t have that Ridley and Patterson do is chemistry with quarterback Mitch Trubisky. But if Nick Foles wins the quarterback competition, then all the receivers will be on an even playing field.
As mentioned before, Ridley didn’t have much playing time in his rookie season. But that was to be expected, given the complexity of Nagy’s offense.
Still, the second-year player out of Georgia came into the league with the traits Nagy is looking for at the position. He runs precise routes, has reliable hands and good body control.
Check out this play that I found while doing research for my article. Mitch Trubisky missed an easy TD to Riley Ridley, and this has become a constant issue for Trubisky. It's mistakes likes these that will give Nick Foles a great opportunity to start for the #Bears come Week 1. pic.twitter.com/zzne4syf73
— Nicholas Moreano (@NicholasMoreano) March 23, 2020
For the 2020 season, Ridley should see an uptick from the 10.1 percent of snaps he played in Year 1. In Anthony Miller’s rookie season, he played 53.6 percent of offensive snaps and jumped to 64.2 percent in 2019. Ridley, though, will have far more competition than Miller had playing in the slot.
But in Nagy’s offense, the receivers will line up in different spots throughout a game. According to Pro Football Focus, Ridley was put out wide for 78 snaps and 28 times in the slot (and also had one snap in the backfield and one inline) last season, so there is some flexibility with how he can be used.
Unlike Ginn, Patterson and Mooney though, Ridley doesn’t have elite speed. He ran a 4.58 40-yard dash at the combine, which placed him 30th out of 37 combine participants.
If Ginn is slotted as the starter to begin the season, Ridley should be the next man up, especially since the Bears invested a fourth-round draft pick (No. 126 overall) in the receiver. The Bears have had success with Day 3 draft picks, so the team needs to see what they have in Ridley.
It’s tough to gauge how Nagy will utilize Patterson this season. At the NFL Scouting Combine in February, general manager Ryan Pace told reporters that Nagy and him have talked about making sure they are maximizing Patterson’s talent.
Whether that is at wide receiver, slot receiver or as a running back, Patterson should get more than the 28 offensive touches he had in 2019.
Even in his limited playing time, Patterson produced four explosive plays, and that resulted in a 14 percent explosive play rate. One of those plays was his 46-yard run against the Broncos in Week 2, and according to Next Gen Stats, Patterson reached a maximum speed of 22.23 MPH, which was the second-fastest speed among all players last season.
— NFL (@NFL) September 15, 2019
Although Patterson generated big plays for the Bears, the team as a whole did not. The Bears finished with a seven percent explosive play rate, and that was the worst in the league.
Patterson won’t take many reps away from Ginn or Ridley, but when he is one the field, defenses have to account for his speed and his ability to create big plays.
Pace, as he usually does, showed his conviction in last month’s draft when he moved up 23 spots to select Mooney.
The 5-foot-10, 176-pound receiver out of Tulane may not have ideal size, but he does have elite speed. Mooney ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at the combine, which was tied for third among wide receivers.
During his time at Tulane, Mooney lined up as a boundary receiver, to the field and, at times, as a slot, and this versatility could help him to see the field sooner in 2020.
However, expectations shouldn’t be too high for the fifth-round draft pick. He will first have to learn the playbook and then compete with the other three receivers who will be ahead of him for the “Z” position. Plus, it doesn’t help that COVID-19 is currently impacting the practice reps Mooney would’ve been getting under normal circumstances.
But when Nagy’s offense is in a third-and-long situation and is in need of a receiver who can stretch the field vertically, Mooney should be the player who enters the game.
Ginn, Ridley, Patterson and Mooney all have something to offer as the “Z” receiver, and throughout the course of the 2020 season, each of them should get an opportunity to contribute for an offense that is in desperate need of a playmaker at the position.