To put it lightly, the Chicago Bears have had a confusing history at the tight end position over the past decade.
They had supposedly found their tight end of the future in Greg Olsen, but then they traded him to the Carolina Panthers after just his fourth season with the team. Olsen went on to become one of the league’s best at the position, while the Bears found themselves with a major hole on an offense that was already full of them at the time. After two miserable seasons of Kellen Davis in the starting lineup, they added Martellus Bennett in free agency. He went on to do quite well - he even made a Pro Bowl appearance - but was traded a year after being one of the catalysts for the locker room collapse under Marc Trestman. Right after Bennett came Zach Miller, a journeyman who broke out as one of the team’s best receiving options. He ended up suffering a horrific knee injury last season that nearly forced an amputation of his left leg.
Needless to say, the Bears have had quite the turbulent decade at the tight end position. They’re hoping, though, that their current tandem in Trey Burton and Adam Shaheen will put an end to that uncertainty.
Shaheen, the team’s second-round pick in 2017, ended up having a glorified redshirt year in his rookie season, as he was on the field for less than 25 percent of Chicago’s offensive snaps. Burton, a free agent signing from the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason, didn’t see much more playing time: he saw the field on roughly 26 percent of the Eagles’ offensive snaps last year.
Neither of them put up monster numbers last year, and neither have really proven that they can be full-time starters yet.
But the Bears have faith in them, and for a good reason, too.
Both Burton and Shaheen are players who have a lot of potential to tap into. The former is an athletic faux-wide receiver type of tight end, the latter a physical specimen with a massive frame and impressive athleticism. Bears head coach Matt Nagy will likely have a lot in store for the two of them, as well: the Kansas City Chiefs ran a 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) on 24 percent of their plays under Nagy’s watch, and they ran a 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends) on six percent of their plays. Robert dug into this more in an article last week, but these numbers give off the implication that the Bears will end up running quite a bit of two tight-end sets in 2018.
I decided to mesh the two tight ends into one article mainly because there isn’t much of a sample size for either of them, so the data from which I can make assumptions isn’t incredible. However, there may be just enough out there that can give us Bears fans a bit of a hint as to how Burton and Shaheen will be used.
We’re going to start off with Burton. There admittedly isn’t much data on him, since he doesn’t have a high volume of work to choose from. However, there is one chart on Next Gen Stats that shows off what he can do. Here’s his route chart from Week 14 of this season against the Los Angeles Rams.
As you can see, Burton was used in several different ways in Philadelphia’s offense. Instead of being a tight end whose main job is to run rounded routes up the middle of the field - although he can do that, too - he can also serve as a weapon in the slot or far outside and run sharp routes.
Here’s a GIF of Burton’s seam route for a touchdown. Burton (lined up in the far side slot) is able to maintain concentration despite being in double coverage. After a very good job of threading the needle by Carson Wentz, Burton is able to make the adjustment and position himself to make the grab.
Here’s Burton’s second touchdown grab of the day. Lined up on an island on the far side, he makes a subtle dig to the outside to free up some separation. After making a sharp cut on his out route, he puts himself in a position to make the play and high point the ball despite physical coverage.
His ability to maintain possession on catches made in tight windows was evident throughout the 2017 season, as his quarterbacks had a higher passer rating when throwing to him in tight windows than any other quarterback did throwing to any other tight end.
Pro Football Focus stated that Burton lined up at wide receiver on 51.9 percent of his snaps with the Eagles last season. They also mentioned that that number is only 0.2 percent lower than the amount of snaps that Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce had at wide receiver last season. Both tight ends are ‘U’ tight ends in Nagy’s offense, which is essentially a wide receiver-tight end hybrid. You can see here on Kelce’s route chart from Week 13 against the New York Jets that a lot of his routes came from the far side as a wide receiver.
Expect to see a lot of the routes that Kelce ran at the wide receiver to be seen in Burton’s game in 2018. As for his routes at tight end, well, that’s where Adam Shaheen comes in.
Shaheen won’t be lining up at wide receiver all that much for the Bears. He’s a ‘Y’ tight end who will be used mostly as an in-line blocker and a receiving threat up the middle of the field. Like Burton, there’s only one chart for Shaheen from 2017, simply because he didn’t have much of a chance to play. It does give a small sample of what he can do, though.
Here’s a GIF of Shaheen’s deepest catch. Lining up at the line of scrimmage, he makes a quick jab to the outside before running a cross route across the middle of the field. He uses his left hand to break free from handsy coverage, maintains focus on the ball and makes the grab.
This chart of Kelce’s performance from Week 4 against the Washington Redskins likely resembles what Shaheen’s role will be in the Bears’ offense this year: stretching the field with vertical routes up the middle.
While Kelce is an elite tight end and his level of play is unlikely to be matched by either Burton or Shaheen, both tight ends represent a part of Kelce’s game: Burton his athleticism and route running savvy, and Shaheen his ability to stretch the field as a vertical threat. This intriguing duo at tight end will surely bring play-calling versatility to Chicago’s offense.