Notoriously a team slow to get with the times under former head coach John Fox, the Bears targeted their three primary tight ends in Zach Miller, Dion Sims, and Adam Shaheen a total of 78 times last season. The Chiefs’ Travis Kelce (123 targets), Giants’ Evan Engram (115 targets), Titans’ Delanie Walker (111 targets), Colts’ Jack Doyle (107 targets), Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski (106 targets), Seahawks’ Jimmy Graham (98 targets), Cowboys’ Jason Witten (87 targets), Raiders’ Jared Cook (86 targets), Lions’ Eric Ebron (86 targets), Vikings’ Kyle Rudolph (81 targets), and Ravens’ Benjamin Watson (79 targets) all eclipsed that figure by themselves. In total, 11 individual tight ends used more than the Bears’ entire position group. As sure of an indictment and lack of faith in a position by any NFL team as you’ll ever see.
Notably, Miller and his 35 targets weren’t even eclipsed by Sims and Shaheen combined (24 targets through the last eight games of the year) after he suffered a gruesome knee injury right before the Bears’ 2017 midseason bye week. In a modern league where some of the most prolific offenses heavily rely on their tight ends as game-breaking playmakers (the Chiefs, Patriots, and Eagles come to mind), the Bears stubbornly forgot they had anyone with a pulse at tight end. Factor in the aberration known as their receiving corps last year, and this misuse made less sense.
A heavy investment into tight ends with Trey Burton in free agency, a developing role for 2017 second rounder Adam Shaheen, and the retention of Sims ideally makes sure this doesn’t happen again. Matt Nagy’s offense is going to use tight ends in a variety of formations because the offensive mind understands how important they are to matchup problems.
But that is a heavy bet on three players who either have never been used in the capacities projected for them in 2018 (Burton and Shaheen) or have a lot to make up for from disappointments (Sims).
Bears training camp is a little over two weeks away, so it’s time to dive into the proper expectations for this overhauled tight end ensemble.
Worthy of promotion
It took two years before the 2014 undrafted free agent in Burton received much offensive playing time with the Eagles. After working his way up as a special teamer, Burton eventually became Philadelphia’s No. 2 tight end behind Pro Bowler Zach Ertz. He’s always been able to shine as a jack-of-all-trades that can line up in the backfield, split out wide and catch passes, and generally act as a position-less player. That’s part of the reason why Burton went undrafted coming out of Florida: scouts didn’t know what to make of his skill set.
Even still, Burton proved to be useful as a luxury for an overbearing Eagles’ offense in 2017. The problem was that his rookie contract was set to expire. There was no way a Philadelphia organization soon set to be limited in cap space wanted to retain Burton’s services.
Enter the Bears’ Ryan Pace and Nagy, who wanted more playmaking out of their tight ends and metaphorically backed up a truck of cash for the 26-year-old in making him the seventh highest-paid tight end in the NFL.
After living in Ertz’s shadow for a few seasons, Burton is now Chicago’s No. 1 (or 1A). After having a total of 91 pass targets from 2016 to 2017, Burton should be expected to potentially reach that number in 2018 alone. After only playing in specific packages with Philadelphia, the versatile Burton morphs into one of Mitchell Trubisky’s most valued weapons.
The question is whether Burton is prepared to excel in such a manner. There’ll be those that decry his signing as being overpaid, regardless. The Bears are pushing in a lot of chips in the belief that he has star ability, despite him never having done it before.
Nagy himself isn’t shying away from what he envisions for Burton. The former Chiefs’ offensive coordinator hasn’t directly compared what Burton offers to Kansas City All-Pro Travis Kelce. It’s more that he sees Burton being used in the same way of one of football’s superb athletes.
“You can move him around, do different things. It’s what we did with (Travis) Kelce,” Nagy said during a media breakfast in late March.
If Burton offers anything close to arguably the best current NFL tight end in Kelce, the Bears will be ecstatic. That’s a sizable leap for a player that’s never caught more than 37 passes or 327 yards in a season. If anyone can unlock that jump, it’s Nagy and the structure of his offense.
A roll of the dice by the Bears.
By every sense of the word, a tremendous reach to draft.
Someone who the last Bears’ coaching staff insisted wasn’t ready.
It’s been a topsy turvy start to Shaheen’s NFL career to say the least. After dominating Division II college football at Ashland, Chicago made the decision to invest in what looked like a long term project at tight end. The leap in competition from that level to the professional game can’t be understated. The Bears appreciated Shaheen’s natural receiving ability and 26 career touchdowns in college enough to ignore it.
Players of Shaheen’s base 6-foot-6, 269 pound athletic frame don’t come around often, and when you have a chance to take a flier and incubate them into your program successfully, you snatch it. The only problem is that everyone in charge of the Bears’ 2017 offensive plans didn’t agree.
Most rookie tight ends struggle because of the amount of responsibilities they have as a blocker and receiver. The rare exceptions are the generational talents such as Gronkowski. Yet the Bears operated on the fact that Shaheen shouldn’t receive much of playing time, even after losing Miller and after Sims consistently wasted repetitions. There was no excuse to throw Shaheen under a bus and not implement him more. Then again much of the previous Bears’ attack didn’t operate on logic anyway.
Moving into Year 2 of his career, Shaheen still won’t be the Bears’ official No. 1. That’s reserved exclusively for Burton. Luckily, the two play entirely different positions, though both are referred to as “tight ends.”
Whereas Burton is Chicago’s “U” , the player that lines up across the entire offense, Shaheen is a classic “Y”, meaning the in-line traditional tight end. Shaheen is the bruiser and primary blocker. The throwback.
While Shaheen will assuredly be used less than Burton, his part to play is relentlessly crucial for the Bears’ success. His red zone capabilities and third down safety blanket capabilities, coupled with evolution as a blocker are keys to a thriving diverse offense. The Bears need every piece of the puzzle.
And for the time being, this is the player Chicago has in their back pocket. Down the line, Shaheen likely transforms into the Bears’ firm No. 1 once he’s fully developed. It’s a testament to the 23-year-old’s maturity that he embraces his current position until then. The Bears need Shaheen to grow up, if only at a slow crawl.
‘‘We’re going to have opportunities, more so than we did last year,” Shaheen said in late May. “Just as a tight end room as a whole.”
Only time can tell what becomes of those opportunities for Shaheen.
On the rebound
The Bears had the chance to release Sims back in March before he was due a $4 million roster bonus. They passed, to the shock of some. That’s because the 2017 free agent signing disappointed in play, at least according to expectations.
15 receptions, 230 yards, and one touchdown from the league’s 17th highest-paid tight end isn’t acceptable. Remember that blocking is his calling card, something that Sims also struggled with, and from a glance the Bears’ retention of him into 2018 didn’t add up.
Take a deeper look into why the Bears are choosing to invest in tight end more than almost any other team in the NFL, and it’s perfectly sensible. For one, cutting Sims and stomaching a $4.6 million dollar dead cap hit had little meaning in the face of inept offensive coordinating that misused him. For the other, tight end is the most important skill position for the Bears aside from quarterback. Pace, ever the optimistic type, didn’t shy away from this assessment after the decision on Sims was made final.
“I think we can use all our tight ends. I think the Super Bowl champions (Eagles) are a recent example of that, of using a lot of tight ends,” Pace said. “They’re all valuable weapons. They’re all a little different. I think they all complement each other. It fits together nicely.”
Pace doesn’t normally map out his intentions to the public. This time around, there are no misdirections. Nagy’s history tells the full tale as evidence.
Sims is firmly locked in as the Bears’ No. 3 tight end based on his own talents. A No. 3 tight end occasionally plays, and especially in goal line and heavy set formations. Last year’s Chiefs’ offense used at least two tight ends 30 percent of the time. Note the fluidity of Burton as a tight end, receiver, or fullback, and that number rises to almost 50 percent of Kansas City’s 2017 offensive plays where they had a fullback or extra receiver.
Whenever Burton lines up in the slot or as a fullback, Shaheen becomes the No. 1 tight end, and Sims has his chance at redemption on the opposite side as the effective No. 2. Chicago is betting on a rebound for the veteran, and they don’t have to worry much if he falters because of it in a prove-it season.
A heavy reliance in tight ends is on the horizon for the Bears. It’s a far cry from forgetting tight ends existed altogether last year.
The Bears’ main focus of this season will be on Trubisky taking the next steps as a quarterback, and rightfully so. How their offense succeeds is rooted in how their tight ends coexist comes in second on the list.
From betting on Burton, to Shaheen plugging away and Sims proving he belongs, there’s a lot to like about what the Bears have set up with their respective tight ends if they flourish based on Chicago’s blueprint. Offensive versatility is the name of the game for modern football and no position is more fluid than tight end.
The Bears are now hip in that manner. They’re ready for their Year of the Tight End.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.