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The Layman’s Guide to Bears Free Agency: “Joker” Tight End

Have you ever gone into free agency and hear scores of names but aren’t quite sure who these players are? Well, you’re not alone.

Philadelphia Eagles v New York Giants
Trey Burton
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

In the third installment of the The Layman’s Guide to Bears Free Agency, I am going to explore world of the joker tight end. If you missed the first two pieces about the backup quarterback or wide receiver positions, you can find it here and here, respectively.

As I alluded to in the last installment, there is another area where the Bears can improve their playmaking ability. If they find the wide receiver market to be a little too rich for the return on investment, then adding a “joker” (or move) tight end could be a key. When I discussed the new-look Bears offense in January, it was obvious that the Bears would need more speed at tight end.

For this exercise, I am making two likely assumptions. First, Zach Miller will not play for the Bears again. I really hate to bring this up but I think it needs to be accepted to move forward. Secondly, Dion Sims will be cut. Let’s face it, he was extremely disappointing last year, especially for the money. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Adam Shaheen will be at least as good of a blocker as Sims next season.

If that ends up being true, then Shaheen is your “Y” or in-line tight end moving forward. I don’t think that Shaheen has the speed or change-of-direction skills to play the joker spot. In this offense, I see him as a “Y” who will be moved around in certain situations (third down, red zone, goal line, etc.). The Bears do have Daniel Brown, and as much as I would like for him to be that guy, he has shown me no reason to believe that he will be.

That brings us to free agency. Certainly you can find some really dynamic tight ends in the draft as well, but I think the Bears draft needs a more acute that any of us want to believe. There are just certain positions that are going to need to be addressed in the draft because there are no other solutions. In this instance, there is no reason not to spend roughly the amount of money you gave Sims, to a better player in free agency. This offense requires a shiftier tight end, and I believe that is exactly what Ryan Pace plans to get for Matt Nagy.

This was definitely a position that I needed to do some digging. There are a lot of good tight ends in the NFL, there just weren’t a lot of fits in this particular off-season. This first name is purely based on body type and what I think the Bears might ultimately want here. If they strike out, and you squint a little bit, I think there might just be a player in there.

Note: I am only looking at unrestricted free agents in this series. There will inevitably be players available via trade and who are cut, but we simply cannot discuss those names without a massive amount of speculation.

Derek Carrier

Normally for a tight end, you might show several of their touchdowns catches in an article like this. But alas, this is Carrier’s only career touchdown. What I like here though, is the feel that he shows to drift away from the defender to make himself open. When you have Jordan Reed on your team, you aren’t getting a lot of targets inside the 10-yard line.

This is where you can see some of the speed that Carrier brings to the position. I think that if he was used in a way to get him into space more, his athleticism would shine more than at the “Y.”

This time Carrier is lined up in the slot. This is where I envision him having the most success in another offense. Here is another example of him using his speed to pick up some yards after the catch.

I have no delusions about who Carrier is and what his career has been to this point. If the Bears spend big at other positions, then they may be forced to go with a lower-cost option that has some upside. There isn’t a whole lot of film to work with here but from what I was able to gather, he seems to have more ability than is being utilized with his current team.

Luke Willson

Willson is a bit more of a combo tight end, who can play either the “Y” or “joker” role in an offense. Given his size and speed versus that of Shaheen, he could fit into the “joker” role on this team rather easily. If the Bears wanted a more interchangeable tandem of tight ends, Willson might be the best fit of the available free agents.

In this clip you see that Willson has good speed and can make tough catches with his hands. Of the potential targets, Willson is one of the taller targets at 6’5”. Imagine having Willson and Shaheen in the red zone...

If you watch how Seattle uses their tight ends, when the choose to do so, it is similar to how the Chiefs do. What I like about this play is it is reminiscent of how the Chiefs use Travis Kelce. Watching Willson, you get the sense that he has a good feel against zone coverage.

One more example of Willson’s feel in the red zone and ability to make the small adjustments against zone coverage. Using a tight end up the seam is something that we should see a lot of, so targeting a player that has experience and feel for these routes is a bonus.

Willson wouldn’t break the bank, and in an offense that features the tight end more, could flourish. As a player that was never really considered the starter in Seattle, Willson should have a “low mileage” body at 27. This is the type of ascending player that Pace has sought out in the past and would make a lot of sense to pair with Shaheen.

Tyler Eifert

The biggest name of the bunch is Eifert. Due to the proximity, there is a lot of crossover between Bears and Notre Dame fans. I am sure most folks reading this will remember his career with the Irish. The biggest issue that Eifert has had is career has little to do with his play on the field. It is his lack of availability that has been the problem. In 5 seasons, Eifert has only played in 39 game out of a possible 80, which means he averages missing 8 games per season.

Despite the injury history, the athleticism is plain as day. Even though Eifert is the largest of the potential targets, he is the fastest as well. If there was ever a player that felt like you were getting another Zach Miller, this is it. The good news is, Eifert is still only 27.

Eifert moves almost like a wide receiver. As I mentioned, his athleticism and movement skills are hard to ignore. My biggest complaint with Eifert is that he lines up almost exclusively out of the “Y” position and rarely out of the slot. I think that he would benefit greatly from being able to move around and create more mismatches.

Here we see him split out wide. I mentioned that he looks like a wide receiver, just take a look at how he moves here. At 6’6” and 250, what a weapon he could be!

Eifert is the tallest tight end on this list, and also the most athletic. The only reason he isn’t locked up with a long-term contract for huge dollars is his injury history. That is a huge red flag, obviously, but could also open the door for a team like the Bears. If you are OK with getting 8-12 games a season out of him, and the price is right, then Eifert could be a massive addition to this roster.

Trey Burton

They player that I think fits the best, but who will also be hotly pursued this off-season, is Burton. The Eagles already uses Burton in much the same way that I believe the Bears would use him, so the learning curve should be low. The other piece of this is his obvious athleticism and versatility. Burton has been used all over the formation due to his smallish (for a tight end) frame. Standing at 6’3” 230 lbs, he is the smallest player on this list, but the former quarterback has a ton of athletic ability.

Here is another player that can move like a wide receiver. Burton’s ability to make that cut on the “2” of the 20-yard line is quite impressive. In an offense that will be predicated on quick, shifty players who can make moves in the open field, this kind of ability is needed in a “joker” tight end.

Just because he isn’t the tallest player on this list, doesn’t mean he can’t make tough catches in the end zone. Burton is a tough player and would bring that toughness element to the offense that is currently lacking.

As with some of the other players, having a good feel against zone coverage is one of the most important aspects of a tight end’s game.

Did I mention that Burton was a former quarterback?

Burton is definitely my favorite of these payers. I don’t think he will command a ton of money on the open market, but there is sure to be heavy interest in him. If I was Pace, Burton would be one of my priorities. As I mentioned in the previous installment, there are multiple ways to improve the passing game without spending $20M on the wide receiver position.

If the Bears want to take a shot on some players with untapped potential and that you are banking on being a great scheme fit, then I think you have to take a shot at one of these players.