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Can rookie Anthony Miller be next Alshon Jeffery for Bears?

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – The Chicago Bears' assigning rookie wide receiver Anthony Miller the jersey number formerly worn by Alshon Jeffery isn’t merely a coincidence.

Jeffery, who like Miller was drafted by the Bears in the second round (2012), represents everything the organization hopes Miller one day can become -- in terms of on-field production.

The good news for Miller is that the Bears’ bar at wide receiver is set notoriously low.

Jeffery battled a host of injuries in Chicago, but he’s still -- despite playing only five seasons for the Bears -- third all time in franchise history in receiving yards (4,549) and seventh in career receptions (304).

One would have to travel all the way back to 1999 when the Bears drafted Marty Booker (third round) to find a “homegrown” wide receiver whose impact measured up to Jeffery, who later secured a coveted long-term extension and won a championship with Philadelphia.

The Bears wanted to complement Jeffery with 6-foot-3 wide receiver Kevin White, whom the club drafted seventh overall in 2015, but the plan ultimately backfired. A two-year starter at West Virginia, White has been a non-factor because of injuries. The 25-year-old has appeared in only five games since he entered the NFL, forcing the Bears to decline White’s fifth-year contract option.

By virtue of being a former first-round pick, White’s $2,693,597 base salary for 2018 is fully guaranteed, but Chicago has made no promises as to what White’s role will be for the upcoming season.

Meanwhile, two things stand out immediately about Miller: opportunity and confidence.

The Bears overhauled their wide receiver position in the offseason by signing free agents Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel -- plus Chicago added pass-catching tight end Trey Burton -- but Miller is earmarked to be a slot receiver in head coach Matt Nagy’s offense and therefore is expected to contribute immediately.

Miller also could be in the mix for a role as a returner on special teams, but the Bears traded back into the second round for Miller because of the way he impacts the passing game. Chicago limited Miller at rookie camp because of a foot fracture he suffered in his final collegiate game, but Nagy said the team was just being cautious. For his part, Miller said his foot has been fully healed for months.

Durability wasn't a problem for Miller (5-foot-11, 201 pounds) at Memphis, where he had 191 receptions for 2,896 yards and 32 touchdowns over his final two seasons.

“He has big hands, which makes it a little bit easier to catch the football, and you see that,” Nagy said last week at rookie camp. “He’s a natural catcher. There were times that you saw there were some inconsistent drops that he had, but there are a lot of wide receivers in this league that, unfortunately, have that. We’ll work to improve that. He can make contested catches. You see that. So when the ball is in the air and there’s a guy on him, he’s able to really make that contested catch. It helps having larger hands to be able to do that.”

It’s also important, as Nagy put it, that Miller has “the desire to be great.”

Miller began his collegiate career as a walk-on before eventually becoming Memphis’ all-time leader in receptions, yards and receiving touchdowns.

Miller calls his attitude "the Memphis grind," a mentality he's determined to bring with him to Chicago.

“It’s just something that a guy has to have inside of him," Miller said. "I also believe it’s the environment I grew up in. The people I grew up around. In Memphis, nothing is given to anyone. You just have to grind for everything you get. I’m just blessed to be here at the end of the day, but at the same time it’s all about work for me. That’s not going to change.

"I try and get in the front of every line. I try and go as hard as I can each and every drill. Coach is holding me back a little bit but that’s fine. I’m just going to continue to do my part. You have to be a little vocal but you have to lead by example. Guys aren’t always going to follow your lead if you are continuously dropping balls, if you don’t know the plays at all. ... So you just have to lead by example on and off the field.”

Added Nagy: “He’s self-motivated. He’s a self-starter. He’s a kid that has obviously worked to get to the point where he’s at right now. You want to take a kid like that that’s confident for a reason, and you never want to lose that.”

Great NFL wide receivers don’t often lack for self-confidence, a fact Miller is keenly aware of.

“You can’t be great without it,” Miller said. “You have to believe in yourself always. You always have to know that you can run that route, make that catch or make any type of play. Yeah, to be a receiver in this league, especially if you want to be going against great defensive backs like there are, you have to have that confidence.”

Miller’s self-esteem received a boost when he met former All-Pro wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. at the NFL combine in February.

Smith, who played for the Carolina Panthers when he had one of the most dominant individual performances (12 catches, 218 yards, two touchdowns) ever at new Soldier Field in the 2005 NFC divisional playoffs, played with an edge rarely seen at the wide receiver position.

Of course, Smith’s intensity occasionally crossed the line, but he’s a possible future Hall of Famer, and for the five-time Pro Bowl receiver to take an interest in Miller was a huge thrill for the Bears rookie.

“He actually knew a lot about my game and it was actually kind of crazy,” Miller said. “I never thought a guy like that would be watching a guy like me, but he did and he gave me a few pointers and I just soaked it all in.

“I can’t tell you all that he told me, but he just told me I’m a great player, he likes the way that I play, he reminds me of himself a little bit in the way that I play kind of intense with sort of an attitude and he just likes the way I play. He told me to slow down a little bit in certain situations because I get a bit antsy sometimes but I just soaked it all in.”