Javon Wims led the NFL in preseason receiving yardage last year as a rookie seventh-round draft pick. He’s unlikely to do so again in his second summer in the NFL. Why? His sophomore strides have been too immense.
If he wasn’t the second-best receiver in Bourbonnais, behind only unofficial offensive camp MVP Allen Robinson, it’s a coin flip between Wims and Taylor Gabriel. Yet, Gabriel last season caught a career-high 67 balls for 688 yards, after signing a contract containing $14 million guaranteed to be Robinson’s sidekick.
Wims was drafted with the 224th overall pick in Round 7 – 173 spots after Anthony Miller, for whom the Bears moved back into Round 2 to select 51st – dressed only four times as a rookie and wasn’t on the 46-man playoff game roster against the Philadelphia Eagles.
“The biggest [difference this year] for Javon is acceptance,” wide receivers coach Mike Furrey recently said. “He finally understands that he can play in this league. He started that toward the end of the season last year. So he was ready to get back in the grind and get going and knowing he can play in the NFL, knowing that he can compete. Now it’s going be knowing that he can be a No. 1, No. 2 guy when he goes in there. And it’ll get there. It’s just continuing to grow.”
Wims told Pro Football Weekly on Saturday that a big offseason emphasis for him was picking the brains of Robinson – with whom the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Wims is similar in size and stature – and Gabriel, the smallest, fastest player in the receiving corps. He said he wanted to know how the vets in his room conduct themselves on and off the field to help improve his versatility and, subsequently, overall value.
“Ain’t no such thing as a bad ball,” Wims said of Robinson’s best piece of advice. “Catch everything.”
Sounds simple, right? Suffice to say, his one-handed touchdown catch in a recent practice was anything but. And the corner battling Wims on that play? It was first-team All-Pro Kyle Fuller, who has been on the losing end of a number of summer duels with Wims, also including a long touchdown from Mitch Trubisky at Family Fest and even a scoring bomb from Matt Nagy in practice. That’s not an indictment of Fuller. Wims – in the process of learning all three wide receiver positions – has had his moments against Prince Amukamara, Buster Skrine and others, too.
“I think it’s not just about getting adjusted from his first year to second year, but being able to slow the game down,” said Robinson, in many ways a smaller receiver in a bigger body, whose route running appears to be rubbing off on Wims. “Knowing the amount of time that he has as a wide receiver, and not rushing his craft when he doesn’t need to. So I’ve been staying in his ear about being patient, trusting his technique, knowing what he wants to get accomplished pre-snap – and I think he’s been able to do that, and the game is really slowing down for him.”
It’s evident that process has sped up the development of Wims, who has caught seemingly everything in sight going back to the spring, when he was earning first-team reps – including from the slot in Miller’s absence – and separating almost as consistently on a variety of routes. He’ll never be a size-speed freak like Julio Jones, but we saw more than enough juice in Wims to think he can make plays on Sundays – even on the field simultaneously with Robinson, only enhancing the value of Gabriel’s speed and Miller’s quickness.
Remember, Wims began the spring viewed by some as potentially the odd man out of a much-improved receiver depth chart with the additions of former Georgia teammate Riley Ridley in Round 4 of the draft, Cordarrelle Patterson and fellow special teams standout Marvin Hall via pro free agency and highly touted but oft-injured Emanuel Hall in college free agency.
But as much talent as the Bears suddenly boast at receiver, it’s not without volatility. Miller and Emanuel Hall are hurt again. Marvin Hall’s speed and separating have impressed, but his hands have been inconsistent. Same with Ridley, who was slowed by a sore hamstring. Gabriel, albeit mostly terrific in camp, is too tiny to play more than a complementary role. Heck, Robinson has missed 24 combined games with injuries in his first five seasons – including three last year – and already could be entering a contract season in 2020.
Add it all up, and the vast strides from Wims in his second offseason could prove to be as essential as they were unforeseen.
“The biggest thing for me right now is when our three or four guys go in the huddle, there are three or four guys going in the huddle to play,” Furrey said. “It’s not one or two. When those guys go in there, when Javon goes in there, we don’t want a drop-off. And I don’t think we’ve had that. … I’ve been really pleased with being able to say, ‘A-Rob take a break; Javon go in.’ That’s that trust factor, which Javon has earned, and A-Mill is starting to earn, and [Marvin Hall] is earning. It’s been pretty neat in that regard.”
Reading between the lines, Wims’ spring and summer auditions might have impressed enough that the preseason no longer is his necessary proving ground to earn a spot on the 53-man roster. But his success last summer served as a catalyst in proving to himself what he can do.
“I think that success during the preseason helped me out a lot, gave me confidence and helped me understand that I can play this game. I can be a valuable asset to this team.”