Ryan Pace has had a lot of bad luck with the tight end position as general manager of the Bears.
Martellus Bennett was sent packing during Pace’s second offseason after the Pro Bowler contributed to locker room instability. Zach Miller stepped up and surpassed expectations before suffering a horrific season-ending injury in 2017. Dion Sims was a swing-and-a-miss free agent acquisition who only caught 17 passes and had one touchdown in two seasons with the team.
That brings us to the current group of tight ends, one that has been disappointing so far this year. Trey Burton was signed to a four-year, $32 million deal last offseason. After a decent first season with the team, he has been virtually nonexistent in the Bears’ offense this year, catching just 14 passes for 84 yards and no touchdowns through seven games this year.
Considering that Burton’s contract doesn’t allow for much of an intriguing out until after the 2020 season, there remains a chance he sticks around next year. However, his disappearing act this year indicates he isn’t a long-term option at the tight end position.
Adam Shaheen was a second-round pick out of Division II Ashland, and the Bears were sold on his massive frame, his upside in red zone situations and his incredible collegiate production. Those tools did not translate to the next level, though, as he has yet to reach even 15 catches, 150 yards or 4 touchdowns in a single season as of this writing. He has looked clunky as a route runner, has displayed little in the way of athleticism and hasn’t developed into the red zone threat Chicago wanted him to be.
Ben Braunecker is a decent special teams option, and J.P. Holtz has served as a solid fullback/blocking tight end hybrid, but the Bears don’t have a reliable pass catcher at tight end right now. That could result in the team looking to draft a player at the position come April.
The 2020 draft features a fairly significant gap at the tight end position between the top two prospects and the rest of the class, but that’s not to say the class is devoid of depth. There are numerous intriguing college tight ends who could contribute for NFL teams in the immediate future.
To break down this year’s class, I’ve divided the draftable prospects that I’ve watched so far into three tiers. Here are some of the players the Bears should keep an eye on this year.
Tier 1: Difference makers
Prospects: Brycen Hopkins, Purdue; Albert Okwuegbunam, Missouri
At this stage of my draft analysis, there’s a large discrepancy between the tight ends in this class. There’s Brycen Hopkins and Albert Okwuegbunam, and then there’s everybody else.
These are the only two tight ends I would feel 100 percent confident selecting in the first two rounds of the draft. While there is some solid depth to this tight end class, it’s pretty thin at the top of the chain, and Hopkins and Okwuegbunam are in a class of their own.
Hopkins is essentially a perfect fit in what the Bears’ offense requires from a tight end. He fits that ‘U’ tight end role that Matt Nagy has utilized Burton and Travis Kelce in in the past. He is a very fluid athlete for the position, as he can change direction incredibly well and flip his hips better than most tight ends. His route running is impressive for a 6-foot-5, 245-pound man, as he has shown that he can sink his hips into his cuts like a receiver and play with quick footwork.
When he gets the ball in his hands, Hopkins is a threat to break loose for a big gain on a consistent basis. He has fantastic breakaway speed for a tight end and has flashed elusiveness and lateral quickness in the open field. He plays with natural ball skills and does a great job of tracking down the football and making adjustments to go up and make the grab. Though tight ends don’t often have great production in college, Hopkins has put up solid production this year. As of this writing, he has the fifth-most receptions and the sixth-most receiving yards among tight ends this year, despite playing in one or two fewer games than every player ahead of him.
He struggles a bit as a blocker, as his anchor strength and pad level could use some work, and he doesn’t have very good grip strength. From a pass-catching standpoint, though, Hopkins is arguably as good as they come.
While Hopkins specializes as a high-volume target, Okwuegbunam offers arguably the most red zone value in this year’s tight end class. A 6-foot-5, 260-pound target with a well-built frame, “Albert O” has proven to be a terror for SEC defenders to defend. Through 23 games so far in his collegiate career, he has 23 touchdowns—a testament to how much Missouri has trusted him as a red zone threat. It’s tough to defend a man his size, especially when that man has the combination of straight-line speed and physicality that Okwuegbunam has. He has very good ball skills and excels at tracking down jump-ball passes.
Okwuegbunam has the body control to move fluidly across the field and make adjustments to the ball to make tough grabs. With his muscular and wide frame, he has the raw strength to contribute a bit as a blocker, too. He projects as more of a ‘Y’ tight end at the next level, but he also has the athleticism to line up outside or in the slot as a wide receiver.
The big man is a bit raw as a route runner, as he doesn’t have an extensive route tree and doesn’t possess the sharpest hip drops when he cuts. His pad level as a blocker could use some work, as well. Plus, he has battled numerous minor injuries over the past few years, and though none of them have been too serious, they could take a toll on him in the long run. However, Okwuegbunam’s physical profile and upside as a touchdown machine should see him drafted early this year.
Both tight ends will likely be selected in the second round, though it remains unseen if both will be available for whenever the Bears pick, which figures to be twice in the middle of the round. Hopkins is a perfect fit in their offense and will likely be available when they pick in Round 2. Call me crazy, but I see a lot of Zach Ertz in his game. He could potentially be the looming threat across the middle that Burton hasn’t been.
Tier 2: Solid mid-round contributors
Prospects: Grant Calcaterra, Oklahoma; Jared Pinkney, Vanderbilt; Jacob Breeland, Oregon; Cole Kmet, Notre Dame
There is a bit of drop-off between Tier 1 and Tier 2, but this tier does possess a handful of future starters who can make an impact for NFL teams down the line.
Grant Calcaterra is my personal favorite of this bunch, and I almost feel bad for not including him in the first tier, because he could realistically be a Week 1 starter in the NFL. Essentially used as a wide receiver in Oklahoma’s offense, his skill set as a pass-catcher is apparent on tape. He is a fluid athlete with good body control and the ability to flip his hips well in the open field. He accelerates well off the snap and has good straight-line speed for a tight end. Calcaterra is also physical in contested catch situations, as he can box out defenders and make adjustments to the ball well.
He isn’t a standout blocker and would likely struggle in an in-line role, though, and his 221-pound frame will need to add weight over the next few months. His receiving value gives him solid, late Day 2 value.
Though Vanderbilt hasn’t been a football powerhouse in recent years, they do have a few solid offensive prospects this year, and Jared Pinkney is one of them. The 6-foot-4, 260-pounder has a strong frame and can physically overwhelm smaller defenders as a blocker with a powerful punch at the point of contact. He has good ball skills and does well in terms of tracking the ball down and making adjustments to it, and he has the versatility to be lined up as an H-back, an in-line tight end and as a receiver lined out wide.
He’s far from a dynamic athlete, as his straight-line speed is average and his lateral agility as a route runner isn’t game-breaking. Pinkney fits the role of a physical, ‘Y’ tight end with red zone potential.
Jacob Breeland suffered a season-ending leg injury a few weeks ago, but his tape prior to that injury looked like that of a quality tight end at the next level. He is a very good athlete with impressive deep speed for someone who’s 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds, and he has fluid hips when changing direction. He’s quick to accelerate with the ball in his hands and has solid ability after the catch. His soft hands and ability to track down passes also give him solid upside as a ‘U’ tight end or an H-back receiver in the pros.
Breeland could stand to add some more strength to his frame, as his anchor strength and balance as a blocker could benefitted by adding some more lower-body and core strength. Plus, the uncertainty surrounding his injury could affect his stock a bit. As a receiving tight end with athletic upside, though, he could be a very good consolation prize if the Bears miss out on someone like Hopkins or Calcaterra.
With six tight ends selected in the past nine drafts, Notre Dame has been a consistent factory of producing NFL-quality players at the position. If all goes well for him, Cole Kmet could be next in line. A 6-foot-6, 250 pounder with a long and muscular frame, Kmet has the build to play as a traditional tight end at the next level. His body control displayed in adjusting to the ball are commendable, and his baseball background is apparent in his coordination: he was the closer for Notre Dame in 2018. Kmet also has good grip strength and hand placement as a blocker.
Though his route running could use some improved sharpness, his pad level could use some sinking and his injury history is concerning—he has had a high ankle sprain, elbow injury and broken clavicle all in the past two years—he is a well-rounded prospect with solid mid-round potential.
Of this bunch, Calcaterra possesses the highest upside, but all of them provide certain aspects of their game to be excited about. He and Breeland would be better suited for Burton’s current role, while Pinkney and Kmet would work as potential Shaheen replacements. If the Bears were to select one of those players, then that would indicate which current tight end is on the hot seat.
Tier 3: Late-round sleepers
Prospects: Colby Parkinson, Stanford; Hunter Bryant, Washington; Mitchell Wilcox, USF; Giovanni Ricci, Western Michigan
The Bears have a handful of other needs they could look to address with their two second-round picks, so there is a solid chance they choose not to pick a tight end early. If such a situation were to occur, then they could look to draft one of these prospects later, instead.
Colby Parkinson is the biggest name on this list—both figuratively and literally. The 6-foot-7, 251-pound weapon is a total mismatch for opposing defenses to plan for. He is a physical player who can work through contact and making difficult grabs consistently. His body control is better than one would expect for such a lanky player, as he flips his hips naturally and can make tough adjustments to make a play on the ball. Parkinson’s ball skills are pretty good, as well. Plus, with five tight ends drafted in the past six years, Stanford is known for producing high-quality players at the position.
His length affects his pad level as a blocker, so he isn’t able to block with his weight fully underneath him very well. His athleticism, or lack thereof, affects his ceiling, as he doesn’t have very good straight-line speed or athletic upside. Parkinson isn’t the athlete that some of his fellow tight ends in the class are, which knocks him down a tier. If teams fall in love with his length and ball skills, though, he could be a fairly early pick this year.
Some draft analysts are higher on Hunter Bryant than I am, but there is still no denying his upside from an athletic standpoint. He has impressive acceleration and hits top speed pretty quickly, and he has great fluidity in the open field. He stems his routes better than most tight ends in this class—an underrated trait for the position that helps the effectiveness of his route running. Bryant has good physicality in contested catch situations, and his ball skills and ability to track down deep balls give him considerable receiving potential.
The main issue knocking Bryant down to Tier 3 on my board is his injury history, as he suffered a serious knee injury that ended his 2017 season and saw him play in only five games in 2018. He’s also only 6-foot-2, which isn’t necessarily ideal length for the tight end position. As a blocker, he can stand to improve his balance and lower-body strength. He has noticeable athleticism and offers upside as a ‘U’ tight end or H-back type and could end up going earlier than expected if teams overlook the injury.
Stepping outside of Power 5 conferences for the final two prospects, we come to Mitchell Wilcox, who has been a solid weapon for USF for four years. He is a good athlete for the position with great body control and the ability to adjust his body to make difficult grabs. His deep speed and acceleration off the snap for a 6-foot-5, 245-pounder is intriguing, and he has soft hands able to make an easy grab. He also offers value after the catch, as he has sneaky lateral agility and vision as a ball-carrier.
Wilcox’s production for a Group of 5 tight end isn’t all that stellar, as 2018 projects as his only somewhat high-volume season in his collegiate career. His pad level and anchor strength as a blocker needs work, and he could stand to work on the sharpness of his routes and cuts across the middle of the field. He doesn’t have stellar attributes in any particular aspect of his game, but he is still a quality Day 3 target who can contribute a bit in the league.
Still a relative unknown in draft circles, Giovanni Ricci has quietly put up fantastic numbers at Western Michigan. The wide receiver convert ranks first among FBS tight ends in receptions, as well as second in both receiving yards and touchdowns. His background as a wide out is apparent, as he has very good straight-line speed for a tight end and good hip fluidity, as well as some potential as a route runner in terms of cut sharpness. For someone who has only been a tight end for two seasons, he is surprisingly good at sealing off lanes for his ball-carriers, too.
Ricci’s lack of experience at the tight end position means he’s still a bit of a work in progress, and he would be best suited as strictly a pass-catching tight end when he gets offensive snaps to start his career. His pad level, weight distribution and body control as a blocker could use some work, as one would expect. He also has a 2017 season-ending spleen laceration to his name, which could be concerning. Though Ricci isn’t a well-known name yet, he does have potential to outplay his eventually draft status.