A successful modern NFL offense dictates that a team possesses not only one star or good starting tight end, but compliments behind him as to offer offensive versatility. Some of the league's top offense's in the last two seasons from the always relevant Patriots and Rob Gronkowski, to the Chiefs and Travis Kelce, either had a tight end who could take over a game, or multiple solid options that offered contrasting valuable skills.
It's by no coincidence, that the latter two years of the offensively inept John Fox Bears era in 2016 and 2017 barely featured tight ends. That's referring to a talent deficiency as Zach Miller was solid in both seasons before unfortunate foot and knee injuries, and nothing more. A lack of quality depth in nothing behind Miller in 2016, leading to a precipitous late season drop in play that saw that Bears rely on such stalwarts like esteemed Harvard graduate Ben Braunecker and Daniel Brown: deep depth and special teams guys, but not real contributors.
The Bears also had self-inflicted wounds with their tight ends in ignoring young altogether. That refers to 2017 second-round pick, Adam Shaheen, who saw a mere 14 receiving targets last season, and averaged 1.5 targets after Miller went down for the season at the midway point. Former offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains spoke of working on "expanding Shaheen's package" on offense. Yet it never happened, as a lackadaisical and ineffective Dion Sims continued to take valuable playing time away from Shaheen: the future.
Looking back, Miller received 65 targets in 2016 as the main tight end catalyst, where he converted those chances into 486 yards. Those 65 targets ranked 21st among NFL tight ends that season, with such sterling names like Will Tye coming ahead of Miller. Ironically, Miller's 486 yards also placed him 21st among league tight ends. Barely an acknowledgement that the Bears had a tight end on the roster.
Take the Bears' entire tight end position group into account in 2017 regarding tight ends and its a similar story of ignorance. Between Miller (35), Sims (29), Brown (20), and Shaheen (14), Chicago threw 98 passes towards their tight ends last season. If you combine these four into a singular blob, that would've been the 7th-highest targeted tight end in the NFL. However, it doesn't work that way, as the top guys like Gronkowski, Kelce, and Zach Ertz have had depth guys behind them to enhance their team's respective total tight end targets.
What this means, is that the Bears of late have drastically turned a blind eye to one of the most crucial parts of a pro offense today. The ideal tight end is supposed to be a freakishly sized weapon that can set the table for your passing game in the middle of the field. That can line up all over your offense, or at least enough in unique formations. A guy that can be a matchup problem against smaller defensive backs, safeties, and linebackers because of his frame.
Offenses like the Patriots, Chiefs, and now Eagles understand how important a tight can be. Each have players at the position that defenses can't reasonably account for, and it's led to tremendous amounts of production.
Meanwhile, Ryan Pace invests a second-round pick into Adam Shaheen with that in mind of joining the smarter offensive group. And of course, Shaheen somehow ends up receiving less targets than Brown and Sims. Using "gross negligence" to describe how Shaheen was used in 2017 is an understatement. This was the Bears blatantly stubbornly crossing their arms to do it their way, instead of fielding the best Bears offensive team with the best personnel, and at a focused position at that.
Moving forward, seeing Matt Nagy forget that Shaheen legitimately exists and is indeed on the Bears roster, will be difficult. If Nagy is the innovator and aggressive but calculated offensive mind most propose he is, Shaheen will become a necessary focal point of the Bears' offense. As he should, given the investment and raw ability on hand.
What that doesn't entail, is who exactly will be behind Shaheen in Nagy's attack. It's not going to be the expected cut of the expensive 2017 free agent in Sims, or body in Brown, that's for sure. Maybe the unrestricted free agent Miller returns after his catastrophic knee injury, but relying on him to stay healthy for a full season is a mistake.
The other question is whether Shaheen is a true superstar, or more of a respectable starter. With the sample size the Bears have given everyone so far, making a concrete prediction at this stage is a crapshoot.
But given the current landscape of the NFL when noting young or reliable tight ends, it won't be hard for Shaheen to crack the top-10 of the position. His main skill-set of a huge red zone guy and dump off option in the middle of the field should be enough for credibility, as top-10 does not mean "star". It points to a barren state of tight end in the league. Legitimately think about how many "good" tight ends there are right now. You can't name more than the five to six truly good to elite talents at the top, and separate the rest from an Agent Smith-style blending-in pack.
It's why New England, Kansas City, and Philadelphia stick out so much. They have weapons at tight end not everyone else does. They have depth there everyone else dreams of. And it's why the Bears should attempt to take the same leap they have at tight end, in a concrete investment of how it can make them another offensive envy.
Let's window shop a couple of targets from this year's free agent tight end market and find Shaheen a worthy friend.
Trey Burton, Philadelphia Eagles
Of the options the Bears could consider in adding at tight end, the 6-foot-3, 228 pound, 26-year-old Burton is simultaneously the sexy and most realistic for Chicago in free agency.
As the No. 2 "move" tight end to the all-worldly Ertz with the Eagles in the last two seasons, Burton has been a jack-of-all-trades that Philadelphia will miss with his departure. From catching a 60 combined passes for 575 yards, working out of the backfield as an athletic blocking full back in essence, lining up in the slot and on the outside, to throwing touchdown passes on trick plays: Burton is capable of a heavy burden for a No. 2.
Since Nagy's Bears are going to seek a multitude of different personnel and versatility in their "Spread Coast" offense aimed to keep defenses continually on their heels, Burton fits like Cinderalla's slipper at Halas Hall. He already has familiar with a similar offense coming from the similarly Andy Reid-schooled Doug Pederson offense. His play style offers a contrast to the brutishly freakish Shaheen. And he simply does everything on offense.
Signing Burton should put the Bears anywhere in the range of a $6-7 million dollar average over a three to four-year contract. Akin to what Sims received last year from Chicago, except Burton is useful. For a No. 2 athletic tight end that can actually catch and effectively block, that's a relative bargain. For a Bears team seeking matchup problems anywhere they can find them, that's a framework to aspire towards.
Jimmy Graham, Seahawks
A lot of people are going to wax poetically about Graham's prolific talents as a receiving tight end this March. In his eight-year NFL career, the 6-foot-7, 260 pound, 31-year-old has mostly been an unstoppable touchdown scoring machine. It's the reason the Seahawks elected to trade for him a few seasons back as to acquire a game changer for Russell Wilson.
But it's also the reason the Saints traded away Graham in the first place: he doesn't do much besides catch the ball for being a "tight end" only in name, and deservedly, at least in New Orleans' eyes, didn't warrant a huge payday to keep around. Three years later, Seattle finds itself in the same place with Graham, who after a 10-touchdown season, will be looking to cash in his lottery ticket on what should be the final contract of his career.
As to whether that team should be the Bears ponying up for Graham, it depends on how you feel about both Graham and Shaheen.
To acquire Graham will likely mean anywhere upwards of a $10 million dollar average over four to five years. Investing that kind of money in a one-dimensional player, let alone a guy in his 30's isn't exactly what a prudent front office would do. Graham presents an immediate and proven upgrade regardless of contract status, but could prove crippling in only a short period of time to the Bears' salary cap.
Having Graham on the same team as Shaheen also probably means taking No. 1 starting snaps away from Shaheen. If the Bears signed Graham for $10 million-plus per season, they're not going to relegate him to back-up as the oversized H-back he is. That'd be one expensive backup if they so chose.
Doing that with Graham and Shaheen makes the Bears only theoretically better in the short term. That's because they don't know what they possess in Shaheen yet, and as to whether he offers much more as a complete No. 1 tight end at an increased value. Having Graham on the same team only stunts Shaheen's development and further prevents a high second round investment from ever having the chance to reach his potential. Why waste with a young player from that perspective?
The thought of MItchell Trubisky regularly connecting with Graham for a year or two is nice. If the Bears feel that way, they should pull out the stops for the former Miami basketball product. It's as win now a move on paper as it gets. The thought of Trubisky continuing to cultivate a long term explosive relationship with Shaheen is even better, potentially better in the short term too, and more well thought out.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron, and is a contributor to The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.