Why upgrading tight end position is Bears' biggest offseason need
Feel free to debate whether the Bears played too fast and loose to start the 2019 season believing in their tight ends. Trey Burton was coming off surgery, Adam Shaheen hadn't come on at all and Bradley Sowell's position switch from swing offensive tackle was the most notable addition.
Unarguable at season's end:
The near-nonexistent production from Bears tight ends was a monstrous detriment to the entire offense.
Burton tallied 84 scoreless yards on 14 catches in eight games prior to being shut down with a hip issue stemming from his failed sports hernia surgery. Shaheen was even less productive -- 9 catches with 74 receiving yards in eight games -- prior to being a healthy scratch in Week 10 and joining Burton on season-ending injured reserve with a mysterious foot injury. Sowell had more touchdowns (1) as a tackle than he did catches as a tight end.
2019 matter of fact:
What was left at the position after the three aforementioned letdowns? Three former college free agents, vet special teams stalwart Ben Braunecker, rookie wide receiver convert Jesper Horsted and Week 2 waiver claim J.P. Holtz -- who produced the most of any tight end with 91 scoreless yards on the season.
By contrast, there were 40 separate examples, authored by 18 different tight ends, of at least 91 receiving yards in a game.
Burton -- who surpassed his season total of 84 receiving yards in two separate 2018 games -- gets a pass, as do the Bears for their faith in him. Few foresaw him essentially losing Year 2 of a four-year, $32 million contract, after debuting solidly if not spectacularly as a full-time NFL starter.
But it was evident to many of us how precarious the "Y" tight end spot was entering a season with Super Bowl ambitions, given that Shaheen had shown little since being selected 45th overall three years ago.
And Shaheen's blocking in the NFL's 29th-ranked run game (yards per carry) and alongside a pass-protecting O-line that ranked 21st in sack percentage left more to be desired than his receiving ability.
The Bears replaced tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride with 15-year NFL coaching veteran Clancy Barone, who's developed Pro Bowl tight ends in all four previous stops in that role.
The Bears have more than $12.8 million in cap charges -- 5.93 percent overall -- tethered to the league's least productive tight end room, ranked fourth overall. Rest assured, that number will climb. Although the Bears said Shaheen will return for the final year of his contract, an upgrade at the in-line blocking "Y" TE spot is perhaps the team's most pressing need. Because it is one of the tougher positions to develop rookies, they might have no choice but finding a Day 1 veteran starter.
The Bears could potentially save roughly $2.5 million against the cap by cutting Braunecker and Shaheen, both entering contract years. But their best hope for Burton is that he at least rediscovers his 2018 form, as he's not going anywhere with a cap charge north of $8.5 million -- $7.5 million already dead.
Offseason need (1 lowest, 5 highest):
If it wasn't clear, it's a 5. The Bears desperately need someone who can at least be a blocking force and give Matt Nagy the flexibility to use more "12 personnel," a staple in the Andy Reid and Doug Pederson offenses that the Bears' most closely resembles.
Holtz showed some grit and versatility, deployed in line, on the wing, out wide and even as a lead fullback, with relatively decent results, but Horsted is solely a "move" receiving weapon -- and a bit tantalizing, at that.
Available players to watch:
The Bears almost certainly cannot afford Austin Hooper or Hunter Henry, but that's the two-way threat prototype they'll be after. Perhaps raiding the Niners' free agents, Levine Toilolo or Garrett Celek, as they ready to break the bank on George Kittle makes sense. Similarly, Kansas City's Blake Bell has contributed in an offense like Nagy's.
In the draft, keep an eye on Mackey Award winner Harrison Bryant of Florida Atlantic, where Chicago scouted closely last year. Notre Dame's Cole Kmet, Purdue's Brycen Hopkins and Washington's Austin Bryant are other young and intriguing talents.