It's official: the Bears have a real need at tight end (TE). Even if the football gods smile on Zach Miller's previously injury-ravaged, 31-year-old body and let him be healthy for another full season, he is pretty much it on the Bears depth chart. Khari Lee is just a body so far, with very little legitimate playing time to judge his skills in live action. Chicago also resigned Rob Housler, who is long on athletic potential and short on production over his 5-year career. If Miller were to go down with an injury early on, the Bear's cupboard of TE's would basically be bare.
The Bears tried to land Jermaine Gresham in free agency but he re-signed with Arizona. They may make another play for a budget free agent tight end or try to trade for one off the bottom of another team's roster, like they did with Lee from the Texans last year. Neither of those options would likely satisfy the need for a starting tight end in the Windy City moving forward. Based on that I am sure Bears scouts are working overtime to find Ryan Pace some options to consider in the upcoming draft. One of the best prospects has been hiding in plain sight on one of the best college teams in the nation.
Nick Vannett, Tight End, Ohio State University
Tight ends in college football are criminally underused at the division one level. It is very rare to find one who is fully integrated into his team's gameplan every week. There are certainly exceptions (Nick O'Leary at Florida State during Jameis Winston's tenure comes to mind) but they are few and far between. In general, even if a TE is an excellent athlete, they will be a blocker first and foremost, occasionally a decoy and rarely the first option on a passing play. An excellent example is OJ Howard at Alabama this year. He is a ridiculous athlete and might be the best college TE in the country right now. On a team with a competent QB he had a mere 33 catches for under 400 yards and no touchdowns in the regular season. How do we know he might be the best TE in the nation then? During the National Championship game Alabama decided to throw to him and he delivered in a massive way: 5 catches for 208 yards and 2 touchdowns. That, in a nutshell, is how TE's talents are wasted in Division 1 football. Nick Vannett from Ohio State fits that profile to a T.
Vannett has very good size for a college TE. The recent trend at the position has been towards smaller, faster athletes, but Nick is a very solid 6'6" and 257 pounds. He didn't run a 40 at the Combine but did recently at OSU's pro day and clocked a 4.74; which turned out to be 4 hundredths of a second faster than Joey Bosa, who is a pretty fine athlete in his own right. Perhaps more importantly Nick tied for 2nd place among TE's at the Combine in the 3-cone drill (4.20) and was only 1 hundredth of a second off setting the best time all day. His 60-yard shuttle time also tied for second best among TE's, so he possesses more than just a good short area burst.
Knowing that Nick played a lot of snaps for the Buckeyes but only had 19 catches this year, you can rightly assume he spent a lot of time blocking. His blocking was a pleasant surprise when I turned on the tape. OSU plays plenty of very physical opponents in their schedule and they run the ball their fair share as well. Both things mean that Nick spent many long Saturdays blocking angry defensive players who wanted no part of him getting in their way. Despite the non-glamorous nature of that work, he never shied away from it and was quite effective with both leverage and angles to accomplish his assigned role. Vannett's not a mauler but there is plenty of fight in him, so he uses his size combined with solid technique to win instead of pure power. In the end it's a workable combination. He'll need to increase his functional strength to win in the pros but he has a solid base (both mental and physical) to build on.
When the Buckeye's did decide to give Nick a look in the passing game he was productive and fun to watch. The first thing you notice is his explosion off the line of scrimmage. It's respectable for a player his size and it helps him win against the jam. Vannett's routes are also surprisingly good for a player who got to run so few of them. His cuts at the top of the route stem are good not great, but they're fairly sharp and get the job done. Nick's an easy mover in space and that really comes into play when the ball gets to him. I love receivers (of any type) who consistently and easily catch the ball with their hands away from their body. Vannett has an excellent set of mitts and uses them to snare the ball out in space and secure it to his body right away. For a TE who saw so few targets in college, this may have been the biggest and best find from watching his tape.
Due to the fact that Nick is such a confident hands-catcher his pass receiving highlights offered up one more hidden gem: his turn upfield after making the catch. Vannett is lightning-quick here and it consistently earns him a few extra yards after almost every reception. He knows he has the ball as soon as he touches it, and that allows him to make an exceptionally fast twist and burst upfield without juggling the reception. You almost have to rewind the film because it looks like someone sped it up for a just a second. It's a little thing but he does it on a consistent basis. That move will surprise defenders when they see it and help Nick defeat their tackling angles to gain more yards.
If this former Buckeyes game lacks anything it is power and explosion. His jumps and lifts were not terrific at the Combine, but not awful either. They simply indicate he has room to add some explosive power to his otherwise full skillset. Without it he'll struggle against the increased strength he'll find at every position he faces in the pros.
Vannett offers a team like the Bears of lot of things that a player like Zack Miller cannot; youth, untapped potential, a healthy frame and a legitimate building block to count on looking towards the future. He is currently valued near the 3rd round of the draft but could sneak higher due to the scarcity of quality TE's in this draft. I'd hate to see Chicago reach for him in the 2nd round, but I would understand it if Hunter Henry and at least one other TE were off the board at that time. While I don't see that as a likely outcome it could happen. For what it's worth I have been picking him consistently in my mock drafts (in the 3rd or 4th rounds) ever since I watched his tape last month. He has some serious potential to surprise in the NFL given his limited passing game work in Columbus, but he'd be an excellent fit (at a position of serious need) for a Bears team looking to build towards sustained success in the near future.