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A tight bind: Bears remain burdened with questions at tight end

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On paper, the Bears look to be loaded with Jimmy Graham and Trey Burton. If only it was 2017.

NFC Championship - Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Tight ends are the unicorns of pro football. The hybrid Swiss Army Knives who, in best case scenarios, act as overarching do-it-all weapons for their teams. No high-functioning, self-respecting modern NFL offense is complete without a reliable playmaking tight end. No quarterback is respectable or comfortable without a 250-pound safety valve running across the middle. No defense is safe against an athletic freak bullying their linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks. (Yes, especially all of the former basketball players.)

Perhaps that’s why the Bears are a low-functioning offense with no self-respect. Perhaps that’s why (or part of the reason) whoever plays quarterback for them isn’t respectable or comfortable when dropping back. Perhaps defenses feel protected in that they don’t have to deal with a human centipede dunking on the poor members of their back-end when playing against the Bears. The addition of Jimmy Graham to an already lacking tight end group withstanding, Chicago still possesses no answer at tight end. And without an answer at tight end, it’s an offense without any discernible rhythm or flare.

It’s no secret the Bears had issues with production from their tight ends last year. Between the veritable cadre of Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen, Jesper Horsted, J.P. Holtz, and Ben Braunecker, Chicago received a total of 44 receptions, 395 yards, and two touchdowns. Noted (undrafted) lynchpins like Horsted and Holtz outpaced the high-priced free agent in Burton and the former second-round pick in Shaheen in receiving yards. Some bona fide superstars such as the 49ersGeorge Kittle or ChiefsTravis Kelce create such numbers by themselves over the course of but a few games. A bleak indictment of everyone adorned with an Y, H, and U label. A black hole of missed opportunity and disappointment only feeding itself with every missed start, dropped catch, and pathetic flails of blocks.

The collective failure of Burton and Shaheen is the elephant in the room the Bears have not been able to address. Burton was supposed to be a valuable No. 2 as a Nagy and Andy Reid disciple. An underrated signing from Chicago’s 2018 free agent class, it appeared his addition paid off with immediate dividends. After an inaugural 54-catch season in 2018, a nagging groin injury has since left Burton, and by direct association the Bears, in dire straits. The player famous for throwing the fated “Philly Special” in Super Bowl LII has been anything but special for over a year. He’s taking up space, both figuratively and in cap terms. An anchor the Bears have no means to get rid of. Burton may well return to form in a reduced role, but it’ll be a far cry from initial high expectations.

What has likely caused more headaches for every decision maker in Halas Hall is the fall from grace of Shaheen. Though, to be fair, to fall from grace one has to have a high peak to fall from. Shaheen, for all of his burrito-eating and (retired) “Baby Gronk” nicknames never made the ascent the Bears had hoped for. There’s no danger if you never made the climb in the first place. A career 26 receptions for 249 yards in just 27 career games isn’t going to cut it for someone drafted in the second round. As it turns out, dominating the competition at the Division II level does not translate to prosperity at the next level. Or at least, it doesn’t translate to prosperity for Shaheen aside from the occasional two-point conversation fade at the goal line. For some players, they are talented but have an issue with availability. For some players, they’re not particularly gifted, but can stay on the field. Shaheen has the futile distinction of unavailability and no discernible aesthetic of ability: The brutal mix of a bust.

Expected production from Burton and Shaheen that never arrived left the Bears in a desperate place. So much so that signing a way-past-his-prime Graham—someone who hasn’t been relevant since 2017—should be seen as a legitimate upgrade. Remember this when Graham inevitably misses a block or doesn’t separate from a plodding linebacker in the coming months: He remains more competent than whatever else the Bears have tried in his place, and by a considerable margin. The bar for disappointment is so low that wholesale acceptance of a 33-year-old veteran on his last legs feels as if it’s the only option.

No one knows what the Bears’ plans are for tight end in the upcoming draft. The only means you could is if you were camped inside Ryan Pace’s head, or Mr. Poker Big Shot himself. A calculated bet would be to expect the selection of a developmental project with any of Chicago’s various Day 2 and 3 picks. It would be a move for the future with the hopeful propensity of a quicker impact than usual. Entering the 2020 season while primarily riding the back of Graham and Burton, and stabling any other replacement value player, is asking for trouble. Moderate to mediocre play in the present and no plans to fix it fast enough amounts to utter disaster.

A tight end’s versatility is what makes him attractive to an offensive mind. An uncanny receiving ability mixed with a nasty predisposition as a blocker is the dream of every offensive coordinator, quarterback, head coach, and general manager. A good tight end is the lifeblood of a prolific offense. Even with the addition of Graham, the Bears have not rostered someone who fits such a description. Until they do, their offense won’t have any respect. Until they do, the Foles and Trubisky’s of the world will have no chance to stay above water. Until they do, every opposing defense has nothing to fear.

Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski. You can’t take a picture of this, it’s already gone.