Trey Burton failed to live up to expectations in 2019.
Things started off well for the veteran tight end, who signed a four-year, $32 million deal with the Bears in March of 2018. He finished his first year in Chicago with 54 receptions, 569 yards and 6 touchdowns in what was also his first season as a full-time starter in the NFL.
A groin injury forced Burton to miss the Bears’ Wild Card game against the Eagles, and another ailment to his groin forced him to miss the first week of the 2019 season. He returned in Week 2, but it was clear that something wasn’t right. He wasn’t as dynamic as usual, failing to create separation and make plays as a pass-catcher. Instead of being a playmaker, he was a liability.
Burton finished with 14 catches for 84 yards and no touchdowns in 8 games before being placed on injured reserve with a calf injury. Though the structure of his contract will likely see him with the Bears in 2020, the team will certainly look for talent to compete with him for snaps and, down the line, replace him in the starting lineup.
With LSU’s Thaddeus Moss having already been previewed, we shift our attention to Purdue standout Brycen Hopkins, who was named first-team All-Big Ten for his impressive 2019 campaign.
Hopkins was one of the most productive tight ends in the nation this past year, placing second in the nation for his position with 61 receptions and 830 yards, as well as finishing third with 7 touchdowns. Though he carried some hype heading into the year, he solidified himself as a high-volume, pass-catching tight end with a future at the next level.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Hopkins’ game is his athletic ability, particularly as a route runner. Though a lot of tight ends aren’t very polished at creating separation coming out of college, Hopkins is a sharp route runner who can run a diverse route tree and accelerate well coming out of his breaks.
Lined up just off the right tackle on the far side on this play, Hopkins eats up the cushion that the safety’s coverage provides. He fires off the ball with impressive acceleration for a 6-foot-4, 241-pound player, but the most intriguing part about this in route is the sharpness with which he cuts inside. He drops and flips the hips very well, changing direction seamlessly and cutting his route short to expose the soft spot in the zone across the middle of the field. His motor after the catch shows off here, too, as he fights through the defender’s first tackle attempt to pick up an extra 10 yards.
Hopkins is a very fluid athlete for the tight end position. He rotates his hips with ease for a player his size, and he has the coordination to adjust his body to make difficult grabs. He adjusts well to the ball on this play, where he starts off in the slot on the near side. Despite the ball being thrown to the wrong shoulder, Hopkins is able to reach back, stretch out and snag the ball. He then showcases his toughness after the catch yet again, shedding an arm tackle attempt and fighting through contact with a second defender to pick up a few more yards.
For a tight end, he also possesses enticing straight-line speed, which makes him an even more dangerous threat in space. Lined up in the slot on the far side here, he stems his route by making a subtle cut inside towards the middle of the field, making use of his leverage against the defensive back to create separation. Once he made the catch, he had nothing but green ahead of him, with the safety making a slow diagnosis and Hopkins’ own defender slow to accelerate coming out of his breaks. The tight end’s breakaway speed allows him to outrun both defenders easily.
Hopkins also has the ball skills and the catch radius to make difficult catches. His ability to high point the ball and adjust his body to secure the catch is among the best in this tight end class. Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy stated that Hopkins could reach 40 inches in his vertical jump at the Combine this year, which would be the second-best total for the tight end position in the past eight years.
Lined up just off the left tackle on the near side on this play, Hopkins accelerates off the ball quickly and fights through the chip from the defensive back by attacking his outside shoulder, thus gaining leverage. He sinks his hips with impressive sharpness and precision, and he also manages to burst well coming out of his breaks. The throw is a bit high, as the quarterback’s footwork is affected by a blitzing linebacker. Nonetheless, Hopkins is able to make an adjustment, leaping into the air and rotating his outside hip to square up to the ball and make the catch.
Though Hopkins is a stud as a pass-catcher, he has some work to do as a blocker, so don’t expect him to contribute too much in that regard early in his career. He does block with a solid motor and has shown willingness to block to the whistle, His grip strength and pad level aren’t all that refined, so he will need to work on bulking up and lowering his center of gravity on run plays.
If a weakness was to be found in his game as a receiver, it would be his hands. He isn’t a bad catcher of the football by any means, but his tape features the occasional drop or double catch in tight windows.
Overall, Hopkins would be a perfect fit as a ‘U’ tight end in the pros. He is a fluid, polished and intelligent route runner for the position who has good speed, great leaping ability and the ball skills to be a high-volume receiver at the next level.
I’ve already mocked him to the Bears in my two mocks drafts thus far, so those who have followed our draft coverage should know I see shades of Zach Ertz in his skill set. He may not reach those same heights, but I believe he can realistically come very close.
If the Bears choose to look for a replacement for Burton with their tight end draft pick, then Hopkins would be the best fit for their offense. The tools he brings to the table are tailor-made for the role coach Matt Nagy’s scheme ideally holds for the tight end position.