Chicago Bears fans are mostly aware of the different types of tight ends that are used around the NFL because the Bears have utilized all three of late, and those different skill-sets are one of the reasons they have so many tight ends on the roster.
That number is currently at 9*, which really isn’t that big a deal when you consider the Bears don’t list a fullback on their roster. For example the last time I checked, the Broncos and Colts have seven tight ends and a full back on the roster, and the Saints and Packers have 2 fullbacks and 6 tight ends.
But I get why it’s become a bit of a national joke about the Bears adding players to the position. The tight end production in 2019 was abysmal, and considering the importance of the position to Matt Nagy’s offense, their deficiencies at the position have been amplified.
Here’s how I see the tight ends on the roster shaping up with an explanation of what each position is.
The Y Tight End: The in-line tight end has been traditionally called the Y, as in X (wide out on the line of scrimmage), Y (in-line tight end that goes to the play’s strength call), and Z (wide out off the line of scrimmage, i.e. flanker). He’s not always playing from a three-point stance next to a tackle however, as the formation and play call will dictate where he lines up. If the Bears want to start him off flexed on the wing so they can bring him in motion, that’s no problem. If the Bears want him split out wide to take a linebacker out of the box, that’s a piece of cake.
Having a well rounded and athletic Y can help open up an offense, so don’t think about the Bears’ Y as solely an in-line extra offensive lineman. Here’s how I see the depth chart among the Ys.
- Demetrius Harris - He may be a converted basketball player, but he found his niche playing as the Y after signing on with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013 after never playing college football. At 6’7”, 230 pounds, he’s a capable athlete that can be moved around the offense, but he’s also proven to be a decent blocker at the point of attack. During his career he has played in 86 games with 39 starts, plus he has plenty of experience on special teams.
- Cole Kmet - I think it’s just a matter of time before Kmet takes over as the number one Y, but in the mean time he’ll see the field plenty backing up and coming in when the Bears go with two in-line tight ends. Like Harris, Kmet has the athleticism to line up anywhere in the offense. Also keep in mind that Kmet is the first tight end drafted with Nagy in change of the offense.
- Adam Shaheen - Right now Shaheen is in the mix at the Y, but it would not surprise me to see him cut at some point to save a little cap space.
- J.P. Holtz - Holtz played more offensive snaps than any tight end on the Bears roster last year.
- Ben Braunecker - Braunecker has been around long enough that he has been able to be a jack-of-all trades tight end for the Bears.
- Eric Saubert - The Bears brought Saubert in late last year when they had some injuries to the position.
The U Tight End: In the Bears scheme they call the “move” tight end the U. You may have also heard this position refereed to as the Joker and in some earlier West Coast Offenses this was called the H. When Mike Shanahan brought in a second tight end in place of his fullback he called that the T or the Tiger Man.
Regardless of what it’s called, the Bears use this guy as their adjuster. They move him around the offense and send him in motion to help diagnose the type of defense they’re facing. He’s rarely lined up on the line of scrimmage next to a tackle, because blocking isn’t his strong suit, but his athleticism gives him an advantage when running routes against a linebacker.
- Jimmy Graham - Sure he’s overpaid, but that points to how much the Bears value the position. The 33-year old Graham may not have the same 4.56 forty speed he had in 2010, but at 6’7” and 256 pounds, he still understands how to box out defenders. The best individual production Nagy has ever received from this position as Chicago’s play caller was Trey Burton’s 54 receptions, 569 yards, and 6 touchdowns in 2018, so if Graham can get close on those numbers that’ll be a win for the Bears.
- Jesper Horsted - As a rookie converting from wide receiver in the Ivy League, Horsted suited up for six games last year with 8 catches, 87 yards, and a touchdown. He also played baseball at Princeton, so this is the first time he’s really been able to focus on 100% football training. I’m curious to see what a year in an NFL strength and conditioning program will do for him.
- Ben Braunecker - While the Bears have used Braunecker in-line at times, he’s best suited at the U.
- Darion Clark - Clark hasn’t played football since he was a high school quarterback, but at an athletic 6’7”, 220 pounds, it’ll be interesting to see if he can develop.
- *Ahmad Wagner - I know that technically Wagner, a UDFA from Kentucky, is listed at wide receiver, but he has U size at 6’5”, 234, and I think a year on the practice squad as Jimmy Graham’s understudy is in his future. He played three years on the Iowa Hawkeyes basketball team, but he did transfer and get in two years of college football with Kentucky.
The H-Back - With no “true” fullback on the roster, the Bears will ask one of their tight ends to take on this role, and when he does he’s lining up as an H-Back. This is essentially the second tight end in the game that lines up flexed off the line of scrimmage. Some schemes don’t differentiate between this position and the move-tight end, but historically the H-Back it has morphed into a blocking role.
- J.P. Holtz - The Bears used Holtz as the lead back when they went to the I-Formation last year and fans rejoiced. They had some early success, but overall the numbers running from the I weren’t eye popping.
- Ben Braunecker - Do it all Braunecker has lined up in the backfield during his time with the Bears.
When looking over the entire roster of tight ends, I have Graham, Kmet, and Harris as locks, with Holtz, Horsted, and Braunecker fighting it out for what could be only one or two more spots. The last two years the Bears have opened up each season with four tight ends on the opening week roster, so if they do that again they could take advantage of the new practice squad rules to call up a player that don’t make the initial 53-man roster.